Mayday for Theresa May

by The Listener / 15 June, 2017
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The British election has visited such karmic wrath on Theresa May’s Conservative Party, voters could hardly have given her a worse hand if they had simply turfed her Tories out.

The front page of one of the papers put it perfectly: “Mess, Prime Minister!”

Whether it was vanity or excessive prudency that impelled May to try to refresh her Brexit-negotiating mandate, the only things to be refreshed were the foundering British Labour Party and, from some indications, the anti-Tory activism of younger Britons.

Not only is the future of Britain’s exit from the European Union now barely navigable, but national unity is freshly imperilled, along with government stability.

And all this is in the cause of a supposed assertion of sovereignty that has weakened the pound and is forecast to wipe at least 2% a year off Britain’s GDP.

The starkest of the new difficulties created by the election result is that Brexit may now not be achievable – certainly not on the terms “leave” voters sought in last year’s referendum.

The UK will probably have to pay a punishingly high exit cost and may have to make so many compromises that it will effectively remain yoked to Europe. May admitted as much last week, conceding that no Brexit deal would be better than a bad deal.

Noises from Brussels have since disputed the inference that Britain might stay put. But neither May nor EU leaders can be sure how a continued impasse might leave the respective parties, legally or in terms of trade relations. All agree there’s no going back. But since the election, it’s even harder to see a way forward.

The principal roadblocks remain – the legal unbudgeability of existing EU immigrants in the UK; the EU’s refusal to open new trade-deal negotiations with the UK until Brexit is nearly concluded; and the eye-watering €100-billion-plus divorce bill the EU demands.

But now there are whole new zones of peril. Brexit stalemate or coalition dysfunction could force yet another election. Instability could become a slow-acting toxin to the economy.

Making matters more complicated, May’s Government now depends for its narrow majority on the 12 votes of Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), which is insisting on a “soft” Brexit, not least an assurance there will be no customs and immigration border with the Republic of Ireland, which is in the EU. This is a major obstacle to May’s “hard” preference of a complete break from the EU and its rules.

By unhappy coincidence, Northern Ireland’s devolved Parliament is in crisis, the DUP having recently parted ways with the republican Sinn Fein after a period of power-sharing. May already stood accused of negligence for failing to try to help broker a new co-operation since the Stormont legislature broke down early this year. Now, beholden to the DUP, she risks jeopardising Britain’s carefully nurtured neutrality status on Irish issues. Sinn Fein has already written off Britain as an honest broker in Irish affairs.

A “hard” border through Ireland would breach the Good Friday agreement, but the DUP won’t accept the compromise of “special zone” status for Northern Ireland because that would breach its full-union stipulation. And the DUP now has new leverage to curtail prosecutions of soldiers and police for crimes during the Troubles, thus further jeopardising Stormont and even peace.

May reportedly told her Westminster caucus, “I got us into this mess; I will get us out.” But it may be that her colleagues, and even some opponents, will end up saving Britain from her. It’s unthinkable she should remain Prime Minister for much longer. More pertinently, senior Conservatives are now openly in talks with Labour to devise a cross-party “soft Brexit”, a manoeuvre that stands a good chance of getting an armlock on the Government.

May’s catastrophic year in office has at least clarified that Britain cannot reverse EU immigration and retain viable trade deals with Europe. Nor can it totally free itself from EU or European Court of Justice rules. The only way forward may be to betray the essence of the referendum mandate, which was to get the UK out of Europe and Europeans out of the UK.

A bitter crowning irony: the UK Independence Party, with which Brexit is synonymous, has been decimated. Post-polling analysis is likely to confirm that a majority of Britons now wish to stay in the EU.

This article was first published in the June 24, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.


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