From the Editor’s Desk, THE TABLET 21 November 2018
Nobody envies Theresa May, but some have come to admire her. She has shown remarkable powers of persistence in a very hostile environment. The draft of the deal under which she is proposing that Britain will leave the European Union appears to have almost no friends. Yet that may not, in the end, stop some MPs from voting for it. They may feel they have no other options left. Will there be enough of them to defeat her? It is universally agreed she does not yet have majority support in Parliament, and even the Democratic Unionist Party, which has a “confidence and supply” arrangement with the government, is threatening to desert her.
The lack of envy of her position may explain why various challenges to her position as Tory leader have not yet crossed over from rumour to reality. Who would want her job, just now? She seems to be driven by her remark when she lost her Parliamentary majority that she “got us into this mess and it is up to me to get us out of it”. The smoke has cleared to the extent that the choices facing the nation can be laid out in front of politicians of all parties. Mrs May herself said they are: her deal, no deal, or no Brexit. And this is true whether she is prime minister or not.
Labour’s demand for a general election has ceased to look credible. It involves not only triggering an election by some means unspecified, then fighting and winning an election campaign before the Brexit deadline of 29 March next year, and then asking the EU to reopen negotiations on terms it has already rejected. The Tories have had thrown back at them their wish to cherry pick the bits of the single market and customs union they like while rejecting such features as freedom of movement they do not – the same would certainly apply to Labour if things ever moved that far.
The DUP position deserves some understanding. In the cauldron of identity politics in Northern Ireland, they fear that the uneasy equilibrium between nationalist and unionist sentiment, which the Good Friday Agreement just about managed to balance, could be tipped over in the direction of Irish unification. The open border between north and south, which helps nationalists in the north maintain an Irish identity, is not itself a threat to the unionists identifying as British as long as there is no border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom. With checks being proposed on some goods crossing the Irish Sea, the DUP sees a border within the United Kingdom beginning to appear.
Not only is there little enthusiasm for Mrs May’s deal, there is little appetite either for leaving the EU with no transitional arrangements in place – “no deal”. That leaves “no Brexit”, which could only be brought by a further referendum that reversed the result of the one in 2016. Many of the opponents of Mrs May’s present terms, including ardent Brexiteers, say they are worse than Britain remaining in the EU. So is “remaining” worse than “no deal”? If Mrs May’s unloved deal is rejected, that may be the choice on the ballot paper.