On January 15, 2019 the flagship policy of Theresa May’s government was defeated in the House of Commons. More accurately, it was crushed. The defeat of 230 votes was the largest defeat for a sitting government in history. 118 Conservative backbenchers had voted against their government and much of their opposition stemmed from the Irish backstop, a part of the agreement which is designed to prevent a hard border in Ireland.
Yet, two weeks later Theresa May managed to convince those 118 Conservative MPs to back her. How had she done it? Had she managed to come up with an imaginative proposal that no one had thought of in the previous two years of negotiations? Not exactly no. Perhaps she had succeeded in convincing her rebels that her deal was the only possible deal? Not that either. Did she return to Brussels and demand that they make more and more concessions to satisfy her backbenchers? Definitely not. Instead she substituted the proposals on the Irish backstop for Graham Brady’s ‘alternative arrangements’, a phrase which literally means anything else.
When you consider that the backstop is an essential part of any negotiated exit that wants to avoid a hard border in Ireland, ruling out the one thing that would work in favour of ‘alternative arrangements’ seems rather strange. But the good folks at the Conservative Party do have alternative arrangements. Hard borders are a thing of the past. The wonders of modern technology have made them redundant. Or at least they might in a few years. That’s right, the one proposal tabled by Brexiteers to solve this most intractable issue doesn’t exist yet.
Another issue which also suggests that this victory is rather illusory is that the EU, within 6 minutes of the vote passing, declared that the withdrawal agreement was not going to be re-opened. Just to be clear, the EU had already let us know that fact quite a few times, but apparently Theresa May et al hadn’t quite clocked onto it. Or maybe it was a simple misunderstanding; after all, the sentence ‘the withdrawal agreement is not open for renegotiation’ could, if you really squint, be interpreted as ‘the withdrawal agreement is open for renegotiation if you ask very nicely’. It’s possible Theresa May was demonstrating an unexpected adherence to French poststructuralism and the power of interpretation that she brings to every word she reads. Equally likely is that this was a demonstration of her political tin ear, a tin ear so bad that it took her two years to accept the possibility co-operation might be required with the opposition in enacting the largest change in national direction since World War Two. Unfortunately, that brief moment of clarity seems to have again subsided as she returns to the more familiar routine of stubbornness and inflexibility in pursuit of a policy goal that she knows is completely unattainable.
So where does that leave us? Well in a little less than two months Britain is scheduled to leave the EU and since there is no agreement that meets the approval of all the veto players, leaving without a deal is looking increasingly likely. Everyone knows that leaving without a deal is going to be incredibly harmful, that’s why parliament voiced their opposition. But they didn’t actually make positive steps to avoid a no deal and so the cliff edges closer day by day. Never fear though for we have a talented and responsive government who are working to cushion the costs. Health Secretary Matt Hancock is now inundated with fridges in his attempt to ensure there’s enough storage space for all those life saving medicines whose supply is threatened by no deal. Elsewhere, Transport Secretary Chris Grayling is busy dishing out ferry contracts to companies which don’t have any ferries but do have a terms and conditions section lifted straight from a takeaway delivery company. Jeremy Wright over at Culture is so stressed out by the whole situation that he’s gone off to play with his Lego leaving serious business to the adults. So basically, everything is looking really really good.
Oh, and by the way rough sleeping and ‘Victorian diseases’ are on the rise in the UK as we slide inexorably towards global environmental catastrophe.