For Theresa May the Brexit endgame looms but nothing is clear
PUBLISHED: 11:59 08 November 2018 | UPDATED: 13:14 08 November 2018
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The Brexit endgame is in sight - perhaps.
Earlier this week an email pinged into the inboxes of cabinet ministers. It said the draft Brexit withdrawal deal was ready and invited them to visit the Cabinet Office to see it.
This was big news: Finally after months of stalemate and delay, talks and summits, something was ready.
Except, shock horror, it wasn’t.
There was, as the ministers who dropped everything and dashed along to pore over the finer details discovered, no mention of the Irish border.
The single biggest sticking point, the issue above all others that could bring the whole process down, was missing. I do wonder why the prime minister bothered showing them at all.
This whole thing hinges on sorting the Irish border now. But it is a mammoth problem to sort. For all the meetings Theresa May and Taoiseach Leo Varadkar have held and all the crisis talks that have happened in Brussels it seems the prime minister cannot square the circle.
Both sides are agreed there must be no hard border in Ireland. That is the sensible option. It would be a dereliction of the historic Good Friday Agreement to go back in time and it would give that minority still intent of causing trouble added reason to do so.
It is vital to both prosperity and, even more importantly, peace that a solution is found. And quickly. If Mrs May, Mr Varadkar and the European Union politicians in Brussels cannot find a way to solve this issue they are not worthy to lead. Yes it is a big test. Yes it is tough but the stakes are simply too high for failure.
And Let us be clear: failure appears as possible at this stage as success. Quite rightly the government is preparing for a no-deal Brexit. It would remiss for them not to both in a pragmatic sense and as a message to the EU that the UK is willing to go it completely alone if they are not willing to negotiate fairly.
Mrs May’s future is tied to what happens in the coming weeks inextricably.
If she is to be remembered as a good prime minister the first thing she needs is a deal. That is not to say Britain cannot thrive without one – at this stage who knows what might happen. But she has made it clear that her goal is to get one. If she does not the Conservative party will almost certainly be electing a new leader.
Mrs May has been close to being toppled repeatedly and it is widely believed that the 1922 Committee chairman Sir Graham Brady has received 44 letters calling for her to step aside. This is a perilous position to be in. Just four more letters to Sir Graham and a leadership contest is sparked.
That would almost certainly delay the Brexit process and anger a great swathe of the British public who simply want their politicians to take responsibility and do their job.
If that was to happen it would be impossible to predict what could happen next. Would it make a fresh general election more likely? Would it increase the chances of a no-deal Brexit? Would the country be asked to return to the polls and vote in another referendum on the question of whether we stay in the EU or not?
The future holds great uncertainty. That is the only thing that is truly clear at this stage.
Let’s say a deal is agreed upon – it could happen at literally any moment as frantic talks continue behind the scenes. Then what happens?
The EU will take it back to the member states. But the likelihood is – if the EU’s chief negotiator Michel Barnier has signed off on it – the member states will fall in line even if the more awkward among them take a bit of coaxing.
For Mrs May things – surprise, surprise – won’t get any easier.
For much of the Brexit process Labour has offered up a confused position. But Sir Keir Starmer’s six tests are something the party can now rally around. It seems impossible that Mrs May’s deal will be able to meet all six.
This means that when Brexit is put before parliament Labour will almost certainly vote against it.
Preparations for that eventuality are already being made by the Whips office. They need Labour Leavers to back the PM and they need the Tory awkward squad to fall in as well. If they fail to achieve this it won’t matter if the deal has been backed by the government and Brussels – the stalemate will continue.
But will it mean a no-deal? Like so much else in the Brexit debate at this stage, it is simply not clear.
So while the end gets closer – clarity certainly does not.