This is the real deal the UK needs: Theresa May needs to exit

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This is the real deal the UK needs: Theresa May needs to exit

The PM's authority has been chipped away, and she is about to lose control of events, so she really should go

Philip Johnston


In any walk of life there must come a point when you know the game’s up. A Test batsman who can no longer get past 50 and is watching his average slowly decline; an airline pilot unable to react quickly enough in a crisis; an opera singer whose voice is well past its best; a writer with nothing more to say (yes, yes, I know).
In such circumstances, why carry on? We may wish to cleave to past glories, or cannot afford to quit, or are too lacking in self-awareness to recognise a brick wall when we have run into it. Which is Theresa May? She has no past glory to speak of and can retire in comfort. Are we to conclude that she, almost alone, cannot see that the road along which she has been kicking the proverbial Brexit can for months has finally run out?
I understand that a sense of public duty drives the prime minister on. I see that the Byzantine complexities of Brexit render normal political considerations redundant. By now, past premiers would have resigned and called an election; but May has been sustained by the knowledge that this would not actually change anything. Moreover, the question “who next?” remains unanswered and problematic for her party and the country.
For as long as there has been some lingering hope that she might get her way, either by bludgeoning her MPs into backing her deal or entreating the EU to make concessions, there was some rationale to staying put. But that has now gone.
Tuesday night’s second defeat in the Commons and the virtual certainty of an extension to the UK’s membership of the EU should mark the end of the line. Anyone with even a basic level of perception would jack it in, if only to engineer a dignified departure of one’s own choosing before the firing squad is summoned.
The received view is that May is made of different stuff, that her resilience and tenacity define her and are her most enduring characteristics. Maybe so; but even if we acknowledge her extraordinary powers of stamina and determination in getting this far, surely Tuesday night’s defeat was the final blow?
The default position is that the UK now leaves on March 29, as has already been decided by parliament and is enshrined in an act of parliament. Despite all the apocalyptic predictions of what might happen if there is a no-deal Brexit, these are hugely exaggerated, since preparations have been made, even if the government has mysteriously refused to advertise the fact. After no-deal was taken off the table on Wednesday, the only alternatives are a different type of exit agreement, or staying in. But since the EU has said there will be no more talks, what then?
To be fair to May, this is the point she has been making to Brexiteers all along. Indeed, she has manoeuvred the whole process to this point, either by design or through incompetence. Maybe because the scale of the defeat last night was less than in January, May will try again, go to the EU summit next week and see if they can give her one more concession, though what that might be is anyone’s guess. But she cannot keep going back to parliament with effectively the same deal, hoping to chip away at the majority against it.
A centuries-old convention holds that the House can only resolve a matter once in any session, unless there are changes of substance. The “new” deal that May put to the House arguably fell foul of that rule, because it changed nothing, however much it was dressed up to look as though it did. For once, Downing Street artfully managed the presentation so that it could be portrayed as a significant improvement and it was unashamedly sold as such in the media by a great cavalcade of government ministers, many of whom must have known they were pushing their luck.
If May does have a third vote in mind, the speaker could well rule it out of order unless it is materially different from the first. She may already have an eye on next week’s Brussels summit for a further move; but why should the EU offer anything more once the threat of disruption to EU trade from a disorderly Brexit has been removed after MPs voted on Wednesday to take no-deal off the table? The Brussels meeting will most probably focus on a UK request for an extension, with May insistent that it should be for just a few months at most, but with the risk that it could last for two years. The terms of that extension and its duration, after all, will be for the EU to dictate.
So there is nowhere for May to go. She has earned great credit and not a little sympathy in the country for her determination to get her deal through over the past two-and-a-half years. But her problem all along was that the Brexit she decreed and her unilateral interpretation of the referendum outcome were not shared by enough MPs or by many in the country on both sides of the argument.
May’s speech on Tuesday in the House, her voice cracking under the strain, was a triumph of hope over expectation, an exercise in self-delusion that bordered on the tragic.
Perhaps, in different times, she might have made a good prime minister. Doggedness and perseverance are qualities that can always be deployed in the UK national interest, but have in this instance proved to be a handicap. Her misfortune was to take office in circumstances that required the political and diplomatic skills that she lacked. She was a paragon of pragmatism when what was needed was a visionary able to see the opportunities offered by Brexit. As her own former aide, Nick Timothy, put it recently, she saw it as a damage-limitation exercise.
Indeed, it was emblematic of the way she has drained the life from this process that the government benches were half-empty on such a day. May’s authority has been chipped away to the point that she is no longer in charge of her cabinet. Nor is she feared by MPs. She is now about to lose control of events. Is it seriously being suggested that, having seen her deal defeated twice and facing the prospect of the Brexit date being missed, she is the right person to steer the process in a different direction?
Until now, she has convinced herself that there was always a chance, albeit a diminishing one, of success. That has vanished. It is time she did, too.
– © The Daily Telegraph

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