Belfast Telegraph

Jon Tonge: It would have served May better to focus energy on winning over MPs

PM Theresa May meets with young farmers and students at Queen’s University in Belfast yesterday
PM Theresa May meets with young farmers and students at Queen’s University in Belfast yesterday
Jon Tonge

By Jon Tonge

Who is advising Theresa May? At a time when the Prime Minister needs the support of parliamentarians like never previously in British political history, she descends upon a place where 17 of the 18 MPs have already said they won't be voting for her deal. Meeting one party who won't show up to Westminster and others who just wish they had enough votes that they could turn up was an extraordinary waste of a day. Perhaps it will prove a farewell tour.

Someone needs to tell the Prime Minister it's a parliamentary vote on December 11, not a people's one. She almost certainly would win the latter in Remain-voting Northern Ireland. Business and farming leaders have made their support for the deal abundantly clear. Sinn Fein and the SDLP think the deal is the least bad option.

A referendum might still happen but would need a parliamentary majority (tough ask), six months for the Electoral Commission to support (doable) and a new Prime Minister (likely).

Possibly the Prime Minister had come to look for the missing Paragraph 50 of the previous May-Barnier deal, lost since last December.

That's the one that said no new regulatory barriers will develop between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK unless the Executive and Assembly agree. It was located in a document that solemnly stated (front page) that this joint commitment "shall be reflected in the Withdrawal Agreement in detail". Yeah, right.

Perhaps she had come to try and locate the Executive and Assembly. Not easy.

The beleaguered PM would have been far better advised to stay at Westminster and help her whips dig the dirt on her party's MPs to try and somehow get them to vote for her deal.

It looks a forlorn task but lots of political and personal arm-twisting might at least start making the arithmetic tight. If some Labour Remain MPs become frightened that a no-deal exit really is what will happen if they vote down the current deal, May might pull off a miracle. But it remains unlikely. She was virtually friendless politically in the Commons earlier this week. We already know what the DUP wants - a deal (any deal it seems) identical to that given to the rest of the UK. And we know that won't be conceded by Brussels unless the UK government offers more compromises. The Withdrawal Agreement will not be amended.

It can only be replaced by an alternative put forward by the UK which might involve an European Economic Area type arrangement which would align GB as closely to the single market as the current Agreement is promising to align Northern Ireland.

To her credit, Theresa May was one of the very few Conservative MPs during the 2016 referendum campaign to urge concern for what would happen to the border. She was correct that it was inconceivable that the border could remain the same in the event of a Leave vote.

We are not yet there with the technology and in any case borders are psychological as well as political. She may also be correct that she has got the best deal available.

But sympathy and (probable) support from North Down's MP do not a Commons majority make. So that's three Conservatives who have arrived on pointless missions to Northern Ireland in the last few days. The Chancellor told a few good jokes and had a nice DUP conference dinner, to no obvious political advantage.

Boris Johnson whipped up those who didn't need whipping up to 'junk the backstop', and then the Prime Minister arrived on mission impossible.

Maybe there ought to be regulatory checks and restrictions on such visits to Northern Ireland from Great Britain…

Jon Tonge is Professor of Politics at the University of Liverpool

Belfast Telegraph


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