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Brexit: Another round

01 February 2019

THANK God for the Second Church Estates Commissioner. This is perhaps not a commonly expressed prayer — though over the years there have been many reasons to thank successive holders of the post, representing as they do the interests of the Church in the House of Commons. Dame Caroline Spelman might not have been acting formally on behalf of the Church of England in the Brexit debate on Tuesday evening when she moved her “no deal” amendment, but she was certainly acting in its best interests, and in the interests of the country. Hers was the only element of sense in an evening during which the rump of the Conservative Party reunited with its Brexiteer extremists and its awkward allies in the Democratic Unionist Party. This was, indeed, a notable victory for the Prime Minister in the wake of the crushing rejection of her deal a fortnight ago. It was achieved by offering to renegotiate a deal that she had insisted, with her trademark repetition, was non-negotiable, a view supported by most of the other EU governments that have commented on the matter in recent days. Vince Cable, the leader of the Liberal Democrats, remarked: “This is foolish and certainly dangerous, because it’s raising expectations of something that’s very unlikely to be delivered.”

The recovery of a small parliamentary majority is not to be mistaken for consensus, or for anything that might “restore faith in our democracy”, in the words of Theresa May on Tuesday evening. Dame Caroline’s amendment, which enabled the Commons to express its opposition to a no-deal Brexit, provided the fig leaf that allowed the leader of the Opposition, Jeremy Corbyn, to agree to enter talks with Mrs May without too embarrassing a climbdown. As things stand, however, he will attend only to advocate the hybrid collection of policies assembled by the Labour front bench. The achieving of an agreement that successfully represents the unspoken preference of the majority in the House of Commons, which is to remain in the EU, remains a distant prospect. Dame Caroline’s amendment at least gave them a voice.

There remains the small matter that the UK will be worse off if it leaves the EU. This is the verdict of every reputable analysis, including the Government’s. The chief fear aroused by Tuesday night is that, in presenting herself as open to renegotiation, Mrs May is writing a new narrative: a successful Brexit is not being achieved, not because of its basic impossibility, not because of the failures of a divided UK Government, but because of the obduracy of our EU partners. The narrative is simple: we were open to a deal, but their “limited appetite” thwarted us, and blocked the will of the British people. This is, of course, a travesty, but it will be an attractive fiction to politicians who wish to disguise their incompetence in the event of a second referendum.

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