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13th December 2018

The Hollow Victory

Prime Minister Theresa May

By former MP for Stirling, Steven Paterson

The Meaningful Vote on the Prime Minister’s Brexit deal should have been the defining moment of her premiership, but after three days of the scheduled five days of debate in the House of Commons, and speeches from no less than 164 members of parliament, the government used a technical device to postpone the remainder of the debate. It was an act of political cowardice necessitated by a desperate misjudgement over the Prime Minister’s deal.

Given this Government’s record on keeping its promises, it remains to be seen if the debate is ever concluded, but for what it’s worth, the Government has guaranteed the debate and the vote on it will be revived before its own deadline of 21 January 2019. We’ll see. 

Shambles

The whole episode was an absolute shambles, and the most compelling evidence yet that this government has lost all authority and credibility. But for as long as it stumbles on, it will be assailed and harangued from all sides, including its own, and will lurch from one crisis headlong into the next. 

That’s not to say there wasn’t logic to the Prime Minister’s decision to pull the vote on its penultimate day. She was facing a certain and catastrophic defeat, which would likely have been too much for her tenuous grip on the title of Prime Minister to bear, and the calculation that a shameful retreat was better than a career-ending defeat wasn’t difficult. The real puzzle is how she ever thought her deal had a snowball’s chance of passing given the implacable opposition on her own backbenches. 

Dead as a Dodo

It cannot have escaped the Prime Minister’s comprehension that offering the same deal again, just at a time closer to the March cliff edge of no deal, doesn’t appear any more likely to succeed than it did this week. Positions appear entrenched, and this deal appears as dead as the proverbial dodo. Yet on Mrs May ploughs, going round Europe’s capitals begging for any concession she can claim as a game-changing victory that addresses overblown concerns. The problem is that after the thousands and thousands of officials’ hours that have gone in to formulating the deal and the complete domination of Brexit on the business of the EU over the past two years, patience with the Prime Minister from the weary leaders of the EU27 is patently wearing thin. 

Of course, no version of Mrs May’s Brexit deal will be acceptable to the extreme hard Brexit brigade represented by the European Research Group, which led to the confidence vote in Mrs May’s leadership of the Conservative and Unionist Party on Wednesday night. There was no real surprise that she won, the vote coming just 107 days before Brexit and with no deal yet agreed. However, she is now badly damaged as it has been shown that she lacks the support of 117 Tory MPs, which will almost certainly be a majority of the backbenchers who, unlike the 111 government secretaries of state and ministers, are not on the government payroll and with an obvious interest in staying there. 

Delay and Deferral

On the face of it, then, the Prime Minister has seen off her party enemies and makes it to another Christmas still in office and apparently victorious. It’s not quite that simple, though. The Meaningful Vote hasn’t gone away, and Parliament will not allow itself to be ignored by this minority government indefinitely. Mrs May’s most trusted tactic of delay and deferral simply cannot be employed indefinitely, whatever parliamentary devices and chicanery are used. And with the combatants so firmly entrenched in their positions, even the proximity of the no deal cliff edge might not be enough to break the will of enough opposed MPs for the deal to be passed.  

Further, in publicly demonstrating that over a third of the parliamentary party have no confidence in Mrs May’s leadership, they have succeeded in putting her on notice, and if the majority of that 117 refuse to back her deal, as seems likely, it’s doomed. They also forced her to announce that she will step down before the next election, although interestingly this was conditional upon this being at the end of the five year parliamentary term in 2022 and not necessarily if her minority government collapses before then. 

DUP

But the real winners after this week’s tumultuous events are the same ones blessed by electoral arithmetic on election night last year: the DUP.  

The power and influence of the ten DUP MPs remains undeniable, and despite proving their willingness to dump the Tory Government over its Irish border backstop proposal in recent months, they remain the key to the Tory Government’s ability to survive and govern. Such is their importance that they could comfortably pull their support for Mrs May’s government having only had half of the promised £1 billion bung of taxpayers’ money because they knew perfectly well there is plenty more where that came from when the Tories so desperately need their support to stay in power.  

And of course, it suits the DUP for it to be known they are holding talks with Labour over a no confidence vote and possible support for a future Labour government. This sounds outlandish because it is, but with the DUP proven to be utterly ruthless in pursuit of their own interests, such an alliance cannot be ruled out if the price and conditions are right. And in the immediate term, these talks, however specious, will concentrate the minds of the Tories that the DUP’s demands must somehow be accommodated.  

For the Prime Minister, the confidence vote is a Pyrrhic victory that does little to hide her weakness after a shambolic week of humiliating retreat. For her extreme hard Brexit opponents, they have both damaged a Prime Minister they no longer trust and pushed us closer to the no deal cliff edge.