Friday, May 24, 2019

Tears for a beloved country

I did not vote for Brexit and continue to believe it is the greatest act of political and economic self-harm this country has inflicted on itself in my lifetime, and probably even my parents' and grandparents' lifetimes too. Nevertheless, I respected the result of the referendum and recognised Theresa May's sincere belief that it was her duty to deliver an outcome that reflected the narrowness of the result - namely to take Britain out of the EU, but to do so in a way which minimised the damage to jobs and the economy.

Although I wish we had never reached this point in our history, I would have been happy to see her deal pass the Commons for the simple reason that it would have removed the baleful spectre of a no deal Brexit and all the chaos which that would undoubtedly inflict on businesses both large and small, not just in the disruption of trading relationships with our closest neighbours but more broadly in the recessionary knock-on effects it would have on the economy.

In her resignation speech on the steps of Number 10 today, Mrs May exhorted her successor, whoever it turns out to be, to seek the consensus in Parliament which she herself has found elusive, but this seems a forlorn hope. The truth of the matter is that the political space for a sensible compromise such as May's deal has shrunk dramatically over recent months and we now have two factions who, by turn, are either hellbent on Brexit at any cost or alternatively hellbent on stopping it at any cost.

The forthcoming Tory leadership battle will only exacerbate this. The contenders for Mrs May's crown will now spend the next few weeks seeking to outdo eachother in a virility contest to see who can promise the hardest Brexit, and knowing the nature of the electorate, it is self-evident to me that the candidate perceived to be the most out-and-out no-dealer will win. Boris Johnson's latest comments ruling out an extension to the current 31 October exit date confirm this.

So where does that leave Parliament? The Cooper-Letwin device that prevented a no deal exit in March is no longer available, and since a new PM set on no-deal would not need to bring a Withdrawal Agreement back before the House, the Commons would have little or no opportunity to take control of the process in the way it previously managed.

Virtually the only sanction Parliament would have in such circumstances would be to pass a vote of no confidence in the new PM, but this would require Remainer Tory MPs such as Dominic Grieve to vote to bring down their own government in the knowledge that it would provoke a general election their party would be certain to lose.

Accordingly, I think Mrs May's departure has appreciably increased the risk of a no-deal Brexit followed by the worst recession since the 1930s and the break-up of the UK, given that - irony of ironies - the first consequence of any move to trading on WTO terms would be that the EU would have to erect a hard border in Ireland to stop the UK having a back door into the single market.

I suspect the tears at the end of Mrs May's speech today were not just for herself, but for the country which she - entirely genuinely - so professes to love.