British MPs can debate all they like, but the Brexit deal can’t be changed.
Forget her staid image, because in terms of negotiations and deal-making, she has developed a radical new approach, for which she has yet to receive the credit she deserves.
By tradition, a consultation process was what came before the start of negotiations, when opinions would be sought, debated, accepted or rejected. In much the same way that cause, by convention, comes before effect.
Not any more. May has taken the rule book, set it alight, then danced in her leopard-print shoes on its burning pyre. After Parliament – following a pointless delay – finally rejected the withdrawal agreement that she and her team had spent two and a half years hammering out with the European Union (EU), the Prime Minister had the inspired idea of offering a consultation process to the MPs who’d turned her down.
Previously, she hadn’t shown the least interest in what they wanted out of the deal, because she was convinced that she was channelling what pundits in this increasingly maddened land righteously refer to as the “will of the people”.
And so she struck a deal with EU negotiators on the people’s behalf, forgetting that the people’s representatives – that is, MPs – retained the right to vote it down. Which is exactly what they did in the largest defeat a sitting government has ever suffered in the British Parliament.
Having warned before the vote that the deal was the best available and that, as far as the EU was concerned, it was non-negotiable, May announced after her historic loss that she would be seeking suggestions from the MPs she had, until then, so comprehensively ignored.
It didn’t matter that various senior EU figures restated that they were not going to renegotiate the deal. May and Parliament were in the grip of magical thinking. And so the farcical spectacle unfolded of British MPs debating what changes they wanted to a deal that everyone knows can’t be changed.
It was as if a group of doctors had got together to discuss what would be the best fitness regime for a corpse or as though the passengers on a one-stop train believed they could determine their destination by means of rhetorical flourish. There was something surreal and rather sad about the proceedings, much like being in the company of senile relatives: you know they’re not making sense, but it seems too cruel to point it out.
In this Alice in Wonderland world, it’s not just that, like the White Queen, MPs have taken to believing six impossible things before breakfast. They’ve also made a virtue of it.
It’s as if they’ve adopted the old slogan of the 1968 revolutionaries: “Be realistic, demand the impossible.”
But in Europe, such intransigence is not viewed as charmingly eccentric. Instead, it comes across as the arrogance of a nation that, deep in its soul, has never quite accepted mere parity with its continental neighbours.
This spate of parliamentary political posturing will almost certainly end in disappointment when May is once more officially told that she’s already signed up to the deal and there’s no more discussion to be had.
The prospect of a “No Deal” Brexit then looms large, simply because it’s the only option that requires no action. If no agreement is reached, that’s where Britain is headed.
The only practical way out may be a second referendum. May insists that it’s not going to happen. In this climate of feverish political delusion, that’s almost akin to a green light.
This article was first published in the February 16, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.