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Brexit showdown: Theresa May just might have one final card up her sleeve

Conventional wisdom has it that the Prime Minister's EU Withdrawal Agreement is a busted flush ... however, Ulster University academic Arthur Aughey says he's not so sure


Prime Minister Theresa May speaks during a press conference after the G20 Leader’s Summit in Buenos Aires, Argentina at the weekend

Prime Minister Theresa May speaks during a press conference after the G20 Leader’s Summit in Buenos Aires, Argentina at the weekend


Prime Minister Theresa May speaks during a press conference after the G20 Leader’s Summit in Buenos Aires, Argentina at the weekend

We await five days of Parliamentary debate on the Prime Minister's Withdrawal Agreement and a 'meaningful vote' on December 11. All the number crunching of possible outcomes in the division lobbies of the House of Commons expect defeat for Mrs May.

Is her determination simply stubborn or delusional, or both? How can we make sense of her position? And does she have any possible hope of success? In my view, the answer to the last question is: don't rule it out. Why do I think that? Let's begin with reference to a surprising source.

In all the argumentative din attending Mrs May's Brexit 'deal' it was easy to miss one ironical comment. After the European Council in Brussels on November 25, Jean-Claude Juncker remarked that when the UK had left the EU, he would miss its distinctive pragmatism.

His words were all the more striking because British political pragmatism appeared to have gone AWOL over the last few years. The present state of affairs makes me think of Stendhal's despairing question in his unfinished novel Lucien Leuwen set during the political confusion of France in the middle years of the 19th century. The hero of the story fears that he will be doomed to spend the rest of his life between, on the one side, mad, selfish, and polite politicians in love with the past and, on the other, mad, generous, and boring politicians in love with the future. The clamour of the Brexit sometimes suggests that public life in the UK has been infected by a similar and mutually reinforcing madness.

Let's cite another surprising source. Seamus Heaney suggested five years ago that the world was becoming 'a big Ulster'. He was alluding to those questions of borders, security and identity which have recently dominated international (and specifically) European affairs. He could just as well have been speaking of the 'deeply divided' character of UK politics post-EU referendum. Commentators, British and non-British, have written of the polarised and uncompromising character of the Brexit debate.

However, the significance of Heaney's remark as well as the subtext of journalistic commentary is that such divisions are uncharacteristic and untypical of British politics. In other words, British politics should be broadly consensual and Brexit is therefore exceptional.

Of course, one response to both assumptions is that both good old British pragmatism and good old British consensus are only myths. Instead of diplomatic pragmatism do not the French (and the Irish) always talk of 'perfidious Albion'? Does not very recent history, never mind the Home Rule Crisis or the General Strike, show something other than consensus? During Mrs Thatcher's premiership, just think of the Miners' Strike or the Poll Tax riots. And is not Prime Minister's Question Time evidence enough of deep tribalism and partisanship?

All this is true. And yet myths are not mere phantasms. They help make sense of cultural expectations. As Arthur Balfour once wrote - and as a besieged Prime Minister himself, he would have known - the partisanship and divisions of British politics (Ireland excepted) presupposed a culture so fundamentally at one that people 'can safely afford to bicker'.

It may seem outlandish to associate Jean-Claude Juncker, Seamus Heaney and Arthur Balfour but together their insights imply that Mrs May has a hand to play which is not already a busted flush.

What is that hand? It lays out the return of pragmatism. How is it to be played? It is to bind up the divisions of Brexit in an acceptable compromise. What are the individual cards? Her five card draw consists of the following ones which are all traditionally Conservative.

The first has been played already to the electorate. In her published letter last week, the Prime Minister wrote that she wanted the outworking of the Withdrawal Agreement to be 'a moment of renewal and reconciliation for our whole country'. Here is the classic appeal to One Nation, a sentiment usually attributed to Benjamin Disraeli but which was actually first deployed politically after the First World War by Stanley Baldwin. Here is an appeal to that consensual myth, everyone putting aside the sects of 'Leave' and 'Remain' and coming 'together again as one people'.

The second card is a pragmatic one. You can make logical arguments for a clean Brexit. You can make logical arguments for a second referendum. But as Prime Minister, I am offering you realism, not logic. The pitch recalls Iain Macleod's celebrated remark about Enoch Powell: 'I am a fellow traveller but sometimes I leave Powell's train a few stations down the line, before it reaches, and sometimes crashes into, the terminal buffers'. Mrs May's pragmatism claims that it will avoid those buffers into which divisive logic - no deal or no Brexit - will crash.

The third card is the compromise card. In a previous generation of the Conservative Party it would have been called the 'middle way' and associated with Prime Minister Harold Macmillan. In this case, the card promises a middle way between a free market, open-seas, self-determining UK and a UK still bound by the requirements of the EU's customs union. It is, as Cathy Gormley-Heenan terms it a 'Schrodinger's Brexit', at once in and out. If that is unsatisfactory to both sides for now, it holds out opportunities: either for those to mobilise for re-joining the EU or for those to develop the potential of being outside the EU.

The fourth card is the highest card in the pack. It announces the return of that style of British pragmatism associated with the former Conservative statesman, R A (Rab) Butler (it was the title of his memoirs): 'The art of the possible'. In the business of what is on and not off the table, Mrs May proclaims that the Withdrawal Agreement is as good as it gets. In short, it is the best possible of all possible agreements and everything in it (for example the 'backstop') is a necessary evil.

But there is a fifth card and it is played for the attention of the Prime Minister's own backbenchers and their constituency associations.

This card is the partisan card and on its face is a remark attributed to Disraeli: 'Damn your principles! Stick to your party'. To the Brexiteers arranged behind her the questions run: Will you risk splitting the party irretrievably? Are you actually contemplating the possibility of Jeremy Corbyn in 10 Downing Street? Have you completely lost sense of the Conservative objective to balance power politics with popular support.

That at any rate is my assessment of Mrs May's hand in the game - unless there is a winning card up her sleeve (and who would think that of the Prime Minister?). And for each play she makes, her opponents are confident enough of a counter. They don't think any of her cards will be persuasive. And it is not Disraeli, Macmillan, Butler, Macleod or Balfour they have in mind. It is Neville Chamberlain, whose pragmatism and consensus we know as appeasement.

Nevertheless, that Mrs May is even still in the game is a quite remarkable fact. Like everyone else, I am not sure of the outcome of 'meaningful vote'. I would only suggest, given the unpredictability of the last two years, that it would be premature to assume everything is over bar the counting.

Arthur Aughey is Emeritus Professor of Politics at Ulster University. His publications include The Politics of Northern Ireland: Beyond the Belfast Agreement (2007) and Nationalism, Devolution and the Challenge to the UK State (2001)

Belfast Telegraph