The Guardian view on Theresa May’s victory: a pyrrhic success built on fantasy | Editorial

Mrs May will have her work cut out to wrangle a new Brexit deal in Brussels, especially as her plans to reopen it have been rejected

Theresa May won a rare triumph on Tuesday night in the Commons. She came back from the greatest parliamentary loss by a government to secure, miraculously, a majority to refresh her wilted withdrawal agreement. Mrs May has had to vote against her own defeated deal to do so. She has had to offer MPs another chance to judge her government in a fortnight’s time. She has had to offer assurances that workers’ rights would be respected and that going forward she would take MPs of all opinions into her confidence. These are undoubtedly moves in the right direction.

However, it is difficult to see how the prime minister will deliver on her parliamentary success. Much more likely, her victory will turn out to be a pyrrhic one. Mrs May put party before country to be on the winning side of the parliamentary vote. She did so by hitching a lift on a Brexiter flight of fantasy, telling MPs she can achieve a “significant and legally binding change to the withdrawal agreement” which would provide “alternative arrangements” to the Irish backstop. The danger is that Mrs May has raised expectations that cannot be met.

The backstop is an insurance mechanism in the exit treaty – designed to prevent a hard border on the island of Ireland – which angered Brexiters who say it potentially traps the UK in a customs union with the EU. Earlier this month Mrs May told MPs: “The simple truth is that the EU was not prepared to agree to [changes in the withdrawal agreement] and rejecting the backstop … means no deal.” What was impossible before is now apparently just difficult. The prime minister effectively told MPs she could renegotiate the backstop element of her Brexit deal and replace it with a free-trade agreement with as-yet-unknown technology to avoid customs checks on the Irish border. The French president, Emmanuel Macron, was quick to say the withdrawal agreement would not be reopened, a put down that will be hard to live down.

This may be part of the theatre of this negotiation. Mrs May wanted to remain prime minster and she has revised her deal lightly to get it passed, even if that meant giving up on the facts. Her logical contortions highlight her desire to prevent at all costs a split within her party and a Corbyn-led government. The ultimate source of political authority is parliament. Although MPs resiled from taking control of the Brexit process on Tuesday, parliamentarians did defeat the government to express a strong desire not to leave the EU without a deal. This gave cover to Jeremy Corbyn to meet with Mrs May to discuss Labour’s concerns. While little may come of such a meeting, it is a small step forward for some kind of parliamentary consensus. The problem has always been that it is clear what a Commons majority is against, but not what it is for.

Mrs May will have her work cut out to wrangle a new deal in Brussels. How she does so when barely a month of parliamentary time is left before 29 March is yet to be explained. Another PM, a French one in the form of Pierre Mendès France, wisely said: “To govern is to choose, however difficult the choices.” Mrs May has not made a choice. Instead she opted to seemingly entertain the delusions of hard Brexiters. She is pursuing a fiction that ignores trade-offs. She has used her defeat as an opportunity to deepen the colour of her red lines, endorsing a deal the EU27 is unlikely to accept. This is not governing.

Mrs May’s achievement represents a defeat for sensible thinking. The victory she snatched from the jaws of defeat is a dismal one: reducing Britain’s role in the world and weakening links to our largest trading partner. It is also appears undeliverable. Mrs May has taken this route after a more conventional approach for seeking consensus within her party failed. Instead the concern will be that she is forced into adopting the hard Brexit playbook, characterised by a relentlessness and lack of concern for anything but claiming victory. In backing the Brady amendment Mrs May has made a commitment she cannot easily keep. If it unravels, she will be tempted to blame the other party with a fantastical line of reasoning, leaving Britain listing alone in unfriendly waters. MPs must ensure that does not happen.

Contributor

Editorial

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
The Guardian view on the EU customs union: the start of the Brexit crunch | Editorial
Editorial: Theresa May has promoted the pyrrhic freedoms of a fantasy Brexit for too long. It is time for compromises that protect manufacturing and Northern Ireland

Editorial

24, Apr, 2018 @5:15 PM

Article image
The Guardian view on Theresa May’s Brexit strategy: failing on two fronts | Editorial
Editorial: The prime minister’s refusal to engage with moderate MPs has led her into the impasse that now makes it so hard to strike a deal in Brussels

Editorial

18, Oct, 2018 @5:57 PM

Article image
The Guardian view on May’s Brexit offer to Corbyn: years too late | Editorial
Editorial: The prime minister’s offer to Labour’s leader seems designed to share the blame rather than the glory

Editorial

02, Apr, 2019 @7:21 PM

Article image
The Guardian view on Tory no-dealers: not serious, still dangerous | Editorial
Editorial: MPs who embrace impossible, reckless Brexit ideas have forfeited their right to shape the debate about what happens next

Editorial

13, Mar, 2019 @8:25 PM

Article image
The Guardian view on Brexit and devolution: wanted – joined-up thinking | Editorial
Editorial: Brexit is not only about the hard/soft argument. It is also about who gets the last word in the different nations of Britain

Editorial

15, May, 2018 @5:42 PM

Article image
The Guardian view on the parties’ Brexit talks: to agree is to split | Editorial
Editorial: A plumbing failure at Westminster brought a soggy end to proceedings. Everything else is getting harder

Editorial

04, Apr, 2019 @5:25 PM

Article image
The Guardian view on Mrs May’s deal: dead before the vote | Editorial
Editorial: The PM has wasted a month. Her deal cannot command a majority in the Tory party, let alone a majority in the Commons

Editorial

14, Jan, 2019 @6:37 PM

Article image
The Guardian view on Theresa May’s Brexit deal: third time unlucky | Editorial
Editorial: The prime minister is poised to try again. But whether she wins or loses the vote on her deal, she has lost the argument

Editorial

17, Mar, 2019 @6:33 PM

Article image
The Guardian view on the May-Corbyn talks: make them matter | Editorial
Editorial: Too late, too little and too grubby. Yet if we want to bring the nation together on Brexit the political parties must continue to try for principled cooperation

Editorial

31, Jan, 2019 @6:32 PM

Article image
The Guardian view on parliament and Brexit: Theresa May’s approach has failed | Editorial
Editorial: The prime minister has tried to ignore parliament and pretend there is backing for her attempt to carry Brexit based on Tory votes. Time for a new strategy

Editorial

14, Feb, 2019 @6:38 PM