Belfast Telegraph

Alban Maginness: DUP should stay clear of the mother of all political crises at Westminster

The May-Corbyn talks could have come too late to save the Brexit process from meltdown

Jeremy Corbyn
Jeremy Corbyn
Theresa May
Nigel Farage
Alban Maginness

By Alban Maginness

If the weekend rumour mill at Westminster is accurate, then Theresa May faces an imminent risk to her premiership. But disposing of May as Prime Minister will solve nothing, because she is not the problem. The problem for the Conservatives is themselves and their irreconcilable differences over membership of the European Union.

Incensed by her bold initiative to enter into talks with the detested Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, to achieve a last-minute, cross-party Brexit deal, her backbenchers have been stirred into a furious revolt.

Instead of supporting this belated attempt by both major parties to come together in the national interest to work out a compromise deal on Brexit, the Conservative Right-wing are determined to scuttle it.

Since 1973, when the UK joined the-then Common Market, there has been a recurrent civil war within the Conservative Party about Britain's continued membership of Europe.

Under Thatcher, largely because she was no friend of Europe, the differences were less pronounced, but when John Major became leader, the civil war was renewed and dogged his premiership. His real achievement was to hold the Tory party together and resist the demands of the Eurosceptics.

By 2015, such was the serious threat to the Tories from the rising popularity of Ukip that something radical had to be done to counteract their increasing support, especially among Conservative voters.

Nigel Farage, the Ukip leader, a brilliantly effective political communicator and campaigner, was increasingly popular among both Conservative and Labour grassroots voters.

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Without his determined leadership, Ukip would have continued to be a rather eccentric and isolated group of political cranks, vainly protesting about Britain being in the EU.

Prime Minister David Cameron thought that the mere promise of a referendum on the UK's continued membership of the EU would do the trick of holding at bay this threat to Tory electoral success.

This short-term political ploy was successful and saw off the threat from Ukip and helped the Tories to win power and continue in office.

The problem was, although a referendum had been promised by Cameron, he did not really believe that the British people would vote to leave the EU.

Therefore, irresponsibly, no plan to leave Europe was ever drawn up by the Cameron government, as they blithely saw no need to do so.

So, whenever the British people voted on June 23, 2016, to leave the EU, Cameron was devastated and felt obliged to resign as Prime Minister.

May inherited from a demoralised Cameron a government that was ill-prepared to leave the EU and was left with the task of implementing Brexit, about which there was no consensus within the political Establishment.

Theresa May, without doubt, made serious mistakes herself by establishing overly strict 'red lines', which, ironically, were designed to appease the hardline Brexiteers in her own party.

She also failed to engage with the Labour Opposition to get a political consensus on such a hugely contested issue. She is now paying a costly price for those earlier mistakes.

However, at the very heart of the matter, the Prime Minister's sorry situation is only a symptom of a deep fault line within British politics, which is not capable of resolution in the course of this week.

The deep division in Britain over Europe is profound. It impacts on all parties and has polarised the British people. It has the potential to irreparably split the Conservatives in two.

This crisis is the major watershed in modern British politics, having already plunged Westminster into mayhem and institutional paralysis.

As time is running out, the May-Corbyn negotiations may well be too late to rescue the Brexit process from meltdown.

Probably the best that can be achieved is an agreement to continue negotiations on issues including the customs union, a confirmatory people's vote and a joint agreement to ask Brussels for a flexible, longer extension to Article 50.

This, at least, would permit a proper period of time to allow the necessary compromises to take place between the two parties and the avoidance of a disastrous 'no-deal' Brexit.

However, a longer extension will legally necessitate European elections taking place and further infuriate the Tory Brexiteers to undermine May and her cross-party talks.

The elections could also cause a Brexit backlash that could see Ukip and the new Farage-led Brexit Party punish the Tories for delaying Brexit, thus further weakening May's tenuous grasp on power. And if May was eventually deposed, the talks and any progress made therein would be likely to unravel.

We are still at the cliff-edge of Brexit and the antics of the Brexiteers are the most destabilising factor in all of this.

The DUP would be well-advised to stay out of this mother of all political crises.

Belfast Telegraph

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