Mrs May’s Sisyphean task

In Greek legend Sisyphus, King of Corinth, was punished in Hades for his misdeeds in life by being condemned eternally to roll a heavy stone up a hill.  As he neared the top, he would lose control, the stone would roll down the hill, and he would have to start again.  And so the phrase “a Sisyphean task” entered the English language to signify something that is onerous, endless and ultimately unsuccessful.

It is hard to think of a better adjective to describe the travails of Theresa May, as she continues doggedly to try to win Parliament’s approval for her deal with the EU.   Defeats do not daunt her, pleas for fresh thinking do not persuade her – back she comes like Sisyphus, with the same task, the same deal, the same message.  And so far, the same result.

For the British public, interest in Brexit (whether they are for or against) has for many turned to incomprehension at the machinations and endless arguments at Westminster, and incomprehension has turned to despair at the shambles that the government is presiding over[1].  And for not a few, despair has turned to an overwhelming desire that somehow, anyhow, no matter how, the whole nightmare process will end soon and some clarity and certainty can return.

And this pretty much describes the attitude of the rest of the EU as well.  Any goodwill towards the UK has now evaporated.  Any willingness to show imagination and flexibility in trying to meet the UK’s needs has been squashed – not least because they no longer know what the UK’s needs are, or have any confidence that the UK itself knows either.

So how has the House of Commons reached this point?  We think three things are driving events.

The first is the simple one of a ticking clock.  This is partly the ticking clock of the Article 50 process, which decrees that unless something happens to stop it, then the UK will leave the European Union on 29 March.  That is the default position, it is hard coded into both UK and EU law and it needs a definite act – primary legislation in Westminster and the agreement of the EU-27 – to prevent it.  The European Research Group (the somewhat odd name for the group of “hard Brexiteers” in the Conservative party) know this, and they know that if they continue to block any alternative, then this is what will happen and they will have achieved their aim.

But what the ERG also know is that there is a second ticking clock – the demographics and sentiment of the British electorate.  Their supporter base is slanted towards the older part of the population, and although it is an oversimplification to assume that all young people support EU membership, the Brexit cause is not winning enough new converts among younger voters, and especially not among those who have reached voting age since the referendum, to replace its natural losses as the older cohorts die.

This is not to say that any second referendum on Brexit now would automatically return the opposite result;  indeed whether a second referendum will be held at all now looks to be somewhat unlikely, after successive attempts to force one in the House have fallen far short.  But by 2022 at the very latest there will have to be another general election, and the ERG fear that it will almost certainly return a less Brexit-friendly government.

For the ERG, therefore, the current time is not only their best chance of securing an exit from the EU, it may very well prove to be their last chance.

We think a second thing driving events is a continued, and to us rather surprising, misunderstanding by some MPs of the concept of sovereignty.  The UK, like almost all other states, is a member of a large number of international organisations, and has entered into many treaties and agreements.  Membership of the United Nations, NATO, OSCE (the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, whose 55 member nations work together to foster and protect human rights), even FIFA – all these and many others curtail the UK’s freedom to act in one way or another.

So to picture the UK’s membership of the EU as a unique constraint on the UK’s freedom of action and the act of leaving the EU as somehow restoring its ability to act unilaterally and “take back control” is something of an over-simplification.  All the other ties that bind the UK into the wider family of sovereign nations, and all the obligations they imply and constraints they impose on the UK’s ability to act, will still be there.

In addition, while sovereignty may imply a freedom to act, it does not confer immunity from the consequences of one’s actions.  The UK can, as a sovereign act, decide to leave the EU.  It cannot however escape the consequences of doing so, the consequences of actions others may choose to take in response.

And one of those consequences concerns Ireland.  The Good Friday Agreement – one of those pesky international treaties that constrain the UK’s actions – will survive the UK’s departure from the EU and will therefore have ongoing consequences for the UK’s relations with Ireland and with the EU-27, regardless of Britain’s status as a third country outside the EU.

Not surprisingly, the EU (on Ireland’s behalf) wishes to hold the UK to the terms of the Good Friday Agreement, and specifically to maintaining an open border on the island of Ireland.  To be fair to Theresa May, she is as committed as Dublin and Brussels are to an open border, but not all of her party appear as clear on this or as committed to it, and to avoid a future UK government changing its mind, the EU will not accept any long term settlement of the UK’s relationship with the EU which does not specifically include provisions for keeping the border open.   And the backstop is the EU’s way of ensuring this in the interim period until that final deal is agreed.

Moreover this will not change whether the final deal with the EU is agreed in March 2019, or June 2019, or June 2029, or even if no deal is concluded at all – a point which Attorney General Geoffrey Cox clearly understood when he told the House of Commons last week that the legal position remained that the backstop could in some circumstances endure permanently.

The Irish backstop is a direct response by the EU to the UK choosing to exercise its sovereign right to leave the EU.  That some MPs find it unpalatable is irrelevant, and entirely down to them overlooking the fact that sovereignty and “taking back control” does not confer an immunity from the consequences.

Both of these factors are driving current stances in the House of Commons.  But more important than either, in our view, is a third factor, which is Mrs May’s own personal beliefs.   It is not very clear what her views on Brexit are:  she was a reluctant and rather low-profile Remainer during the referendum campaign, and her current stance of hard Brexiteer, unmoveable and replete with red lines, does not really ring true either.  But one thing does appear to arouse her passion above most other things, and that is the fate of the Conservative party.

Mrs May has been a member of the Conservative party almost all her adult life, serving as a local councillor in the 1980s and early 1990s before she became an MP in the 1997 election.  She came to prominence in 2002 with a hard-hitting speech urging her party to examine itself[2], and has worked harder than most senior Tory MPs to understand the general membership of the party.  It is clear that she is deeply committed to it and, as leader of the party, feels a great sense of responsibility for its future.

And she seems to have concluded that Brexit is a make-or-break point for the Conservatives.  She knows that the Tories have twice before in their history been irrevocably split by the question of free trade, in the first decade of the last century over Tariff Reform and in the 1840s over the Corn Laws.  In both cases the party was torn asunder by infighting and was roundly rejected by the electorate at the following general election, and she clearly fears that if the government does not deliver the UK’s departure from the EU, it will face similar civil war and accusations of betraying its supporters, and a similar major rejection at the 2022 election.

One senses that for Mrs May, whether or not she really believes her much-repeated mantra that for her country, “No deal is better than a bad deal”, she certainly thinks that for her party, “Any exit is better than no exit”.

And so, like Sisyphus rolling his stone back up the hill, later this month Mrs May proposes once again to try to get parliamentary approval for her withdrawal agreement.  It is almost beyond comprehension that a prime minister whose major policy has been so thoroughly rejected by the House twice already should re-present her proposals – largely unchanged from their last rejection – a third time, but Mrs May knows her duty.

It is not just for her country’s future that she is doing it.  It is for her party’s.


[1]              A shambles perfectly encapsulated for many people by the sight of Stephen Barclay, the Brexit Secretary no less, winding up a debate in the House by urging people to vote for the government’s motion on delaying Brexit – and then moments later himself voting against it.  For which extraordinary act of rebellion he escaped any formal sanction or reprimand from the Whips Office.

[2]              Speaking as Party Chairman to the 2002 Conservative party conference, she was unsparing in a critical assessment of the party’s recent failings.  The speech’s most memorable phrase was “You know what people call us?  The Nasty Party”, a phrase that has remained identified with her and indeed her party ever since.