Belfast Telegraph

Alex Kane: What the 30 months since the EU referendum have shown us is how absolutely useless Parliament is in a crisis... that should worry us more than anything

Alex Kane will be astonished if the UK does leave the EU on March 29. Then the real crisis will begin

Theresa May speaking outside Downing Street last week after MPs rejected Labour’s motion of no confidence in her
Theresa May speaking outside Downing Street last week after MPs rejected Labour’s motion of no confidence in her

Just 67 days to go and Mrs May is only now getting around to presenting her Plan B for extricating the United Kingdom from the EU. It isn't even a thought-through, properly tested Plan B; merely an amendable motion to the House of Commons that could, after hours of acrimonious same-old, same-old debate, crash and burn next Tuesday evening, by which time there'll be just 59 days left to concoct and deliver a deal.

The real problem - and it has dogged the process from day one of her premiership - is that nothing has been set in stone.

Even the exit date of March 29 is not set in stone, because there are enough MPs across the House who believe that the exit timetable can be extended, or postponed altogether.

And because enough of them believe that, it means they'll continue to "chance their arm" with other options rather than focus on getting the country out in one piece and with a clear gameplan in place once the clock hand reaches one minute past 11am on March 29.

The Prime Minister faces a seemingly impossible task today. I say "seemingly" only because she clearly believes - although she may now be utterly deluded - that she can yet convert her "Brexit means Brexit" mantra into an orderly and coherent departure.

Ideally, she needs something that will attract support from the Labour, SNP and Lib Dem benches, but that's going to be enormously difficult if she refuses to contemplate a very "soft" Brexit, continuing free movement and ongoing membership of the customs union.

She has spent the past few days talking to those parties (unofficially in Labour's case, because Jeremy Corbyn refused to take part without a pledge that she would rule out a no-deal option. She couldn't, of course, because that could have meant not leaving on March 29), but there are no whispers of a breakthrough.

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Her other problem, of course, is that Jacob Rees-Mogg's European Research Group (ERG) and the DUP (around 80-90 MPs) would not run with a soft Brexit. That said, the DUP could be tempted to support her if it had rock-solid guarantees that the backstop would be time-limited to a maximum of two years.

Its linkage to Rees-Mogg and Boris Johnson has ensured massive publicity for the DUP, but it is not psychologically, or ideologically, wedded to a hard Brexit in the way that the ERG is; what it really wants is a soft solution for the border, along with a deal that keeps it in step with the entire UK. In other words, it has a flexibility the ERG doesn't.

Within the next few days Mrs May needs fairly conclusive evidence that she can, against all the odds, deliver Brexit in some form; albeit a form that avoids a formal split within her party.

All of her instincts are against a no-deal exit. The instincts of an overwhelming majority of the Commons are against no-deal.

There is talk of a general election at the end of February, but if she hasn't been able to get common ground with her parliamentary party since the last election in June 2017, then I don't see her being able to construct a manifesto around which her party - let alone the candidates - could stand.

An early election would almost certainly require postponing Brexit, plus she has no guarantee that the Conservatives would actually win either a convincing, or consensual, majority.

She needs to be careful, too, about the guerrilla tactics being waged against her from all sides of the House.

There are a number in play over the next few days, including a Bill to extend Article 50, an amendment for a second referendum, a Labour amendment requiring the Government to seek a customs union, and an amendment that expresses Parliament's rejection of a no-deal exit.

Remain MPs represent a comfortable majority across all the benches; but what they don't have is a common plan built around a single exit strategy.

Mrs May could, if she was so minded (although she has probably left it far too late), try to bind the Remain majority around a very soft Brexit, hoping that they would prefer that to a no-deal departure. There's a fair chance of keeping about two-thirds of her own MPs on board, but a far higher chance of splitting the Conservative Party down the middle and destroying hundreds of constituency associations.

She fears a referendum for the same reason. I actually believe her when she says she wants to "implement" the will of the majority at the 2016 referendum.

I don't think she would shed any tears if a second referendum delivered a victory for Remain (although it would have to be a very comfortable majority), yet she would be well aware - as the Conservative PM who failed to stop it - that it would do huge electoral damage to the Tories and maybe (which I think is less likely) provide a significant breakthrough for Ukip.

It is significant, though, that both Nigel Farage and the Leave Means Leave group are already planning for an "inevitable" second referendum, while yesterday's Sunday Telegraph reported: "Sir Nick Clegg, the former deputy PM, travelled to Brussels to plead with senior EU officials to give the UK control over its borders to persuade voters to vote Remain in a second referendum."

Meanwhile, Liam Fox, the International Trade Secretary and Brexiteer, has warned that anti-Brexit plotters risk a "political tsunami" that would open up a yawning gap between voters and Parliament. But, like the Prime Minister, he is well aware that the most damage done in that circumstance would be to the Conservatives.

Can the EU help Mrs May at this stage? It will give her nothing unless it is sure she can get an amended version of the withdrawal agreement through.

Why, for example, would it shift on the Irish backstop (a hugely significant concession) if it thought she was still likely to lose? More importantly, why offer any concessions while a second referendum - and possible Remain victory - is still in play?

At this point anything is possible, including the resignation of Mrs May if she has another bad day next Tuesday. Brexiteers believe that someone like Johnson, one of their own, would deliver the Brexit they want; but I suspect a Remain-minded Commons would make life even more difficult for him than it did for her.

As it stands, I would be astonished - something I haven't been for a long, long time - if the UK leaves the EU on March 29.

Ironically, that's when the real political crisis may start.

One thing we have learned over the past 30 months is that Parliament has been useless, absolutely useless, in a crisis.

That should probably worry us more than anything else.

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