Reflections on the dramatic events
When I was a child, we used to visit my maternal grandparents most Sundays. I learned my love of card games and Scrabble there, including the importance of seating: my grandpa would cheat to ensure my grandma won (she was a shocking loser and he knew which side his bread was buttered). Sunday tea was an institution, my grandma slipping Ben her fat golden Labrador little treats from her plate when she thought no one was looking.
My grandma kept the house immaculate, with display cabinets filled with charming if not particularly valuable china – the teapot with an orange radish for a lid handle sticks in my mind. On the wall, gripped in those elasticated plate holders that fill antiques experts with horror, was a plate with a cartoon scene from the First World War showing two bedraggled soldiers sheltering in a make-shift bunker with artillery raining down. One was saying to the other: “if you knows of a better ‘ole go to it”.
That cartoon sprang unbidden back to my mind as the Cabinet’s farewell symphony after the Chequers deal unfolded. Conservative Leaver MPs were swift to draw attention to the many defects that they identified with Theresa May’s plan, to lament the absence of planning for no deal, to decry the betrayal of the referendum vote and to call on her to change course. What they conspicuously did not do was come up with an alternative strategy. It seems that they don’t know of a better ‘ole.
That doesn’t mean that you would want to get stuck in the trenches with them. At every point before, during and since the referendum, Leavers have been very clear about what they don’t want and completely befuddled about what they might actually want that was achievable through negotiation. This state of affairs has not changed. Their inability to come up with an alternative hasn’t stopped them detonating ordnance in a bid to make Theresa May’s position uninhabitable.
Time is now short. Britain is due to leave the EU on 29 March 2019. Britain needs some form of plan, if only to start discussions. Theresa May’s plan, for all its defects, has the great merit of actually being a plan, which is more than can be said of anything that any of her critics including resigning ministers have put forward.
As I write, it looks pretty certain that Theresa May will face a vote of no confidence. Her opponents in that and any future candidates for the Conservative party leadership will need to be able to do more than just critique the proposals of others; they will need to put forward positive suggestions of their own.
If you think that British politics looks chaotic now, just wait until the Conservative party decides to conduct its Cabinet negotiation over its Brexit position in the full glare of a party leadership election contest. Add to that the fact that there isn’t the slightest sign that the losers (whoever they might be) will get behind the winners in such a contest and the chaos looks set only to worsen. And all of that, of course, ignores the fact that whatever is alighted on then has to be negotiated with the EU, who do not look particularly inclined to be indulgent of the British just now.
What that suggests is that the Leavers should look again at Theresa May’s strategy, as the Cabinet ministers were initially inclined to do before running into the wrath of the Leaver obsessives in the outside world. It may not be exactly what they want, but it is a plan.Sooner or later, Leavers are going to have to start compromising with the dictates of the real world. Now would be a very good time to start.