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Unworthy deal

23 November 2018

OF ALL the Articles of Religion, it is remarkable how frequently Article XXVI, “Of the unworthiness of the Ministers, which hinders not the effect of the Sacrament”, has been invoked. It has given reassurance to generations of worshippers unfortunate enough to suffer the ministrations of a venal priest. The Article is helpful, too, in its wider application, enabling the governed to distinguish between their governors and their government. If the Brexit rows of the past ten days are viewed through such a lens, the distraction of the Brexiteer letter-writers can be set to one side. The conflict within the Conservative Party, even over the person who leads it, are currently immaterial. The sole concern of the electorate, and the parliamentarians who represent them, is the transitionary arrangements proposed by the Prime Minister last week. The MPs’ duty of care to their constituents presents them with one question: Does the deal on the table point the way to a Britain that will thrive better than it does at present?

Over the past few months, and particularly during this past week, the familiar binary choice of Leave or Remain has been replaced by an old game-show slogan, Deal or No Deal. The legal and economic chaos of crashing out of the EU without any agreement about trade, freedom of movement, security, or regulation (still, astonishingly, welcomed by a few extremists) is being presented as the only alternative to the plan pushed through a divided and unenthusiastic Cabinet last week. This approach has — either cleverly or accidentally — chimed with the general weariness and exasperation at the incompetence, squabbling, and stagnation of the past two years. Here, says Theresa May, is the way out of all this uncertainty and disagreement: it is not perfect, but it is the best that can be achieved in the circumstances. And suddenly the hearts of the British stir. The national character — seen, we would argue, most clearly in the religion it has adopted and adapted — is founded on compromise. The British may occasionally be led astray by talk of sunlit uplands, but they know that it will rain, sooner rather than later. Life has taught them that they cannot have all that they long for, and they feel most comfortable with a deal that purports to offer them something, even if it is less than they have at present.

It seems somehow un-British, and certainly un-Anglican, to argue against compromise. But this is a misrepresentation of Mrs May’s deal: it is not a compromise. It is a grey transitionary arrangement on the way to something worse — or maybe the flavour of things to come: Jo Johnson, the former transport minister, referred to it at the weekend as “never-ending purgatory”. His more prominent brother, Boris, described it as “substantially worse than staying in the EU”. The logical step now seems obvious; but if the politicians lack the strength to advocate remaining in the EU — the unworthiness of Ministers, once again — then the electorate should be given the chance to decide.

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