Monday 25 February 2019

Threat as standard procedure

I’m not at all sure that last week’s ‘threat’ by three members of the cabinet to vote against a no-deal Brexit was all that the media have claimed it to be.  The Brexiteers seemed pretty angry about it all, demanding that the three should resign for what one referred to as “rejecting government policy”.  But is that what they are really doing?
Insofar as I understand the government’s current policy, it is that parliament should approve the deal Theresa May first said was the only deal then said wasn’t and is now (I think) back to saying it is albeit with a few fancy words around it.  And the tactic to get to that point is to threaten all MPs who favour either scrapping Brexit altogether or else negotiating a much closer relationship with the EU that if they don’t support her deal they’ll end up with no deal, whilst simultaneously threatening the mad men and women of the ERG that they’ll end up with no Brexit at all if they don’t support her deal.  Trying to threaten two opposite groups with two opposite outcomes at the same time hasn’t worked terribly well for her to date, not least because both sides can hear what she’s saying to the other.  What better way to achieve her aim than to ‘outsource’ those threats to different factions in her own party?
In that sense, the apparent ‘threat’ by three cabinet ministers looks entirely consistent with the PM’s strategy – they are ramping up pressure on the ERG to fall into line.  According to unnamed EU sources reported by the Guardian just the previous day, “Barnier added that May had the option of threatening the Brexiters with an extension of article 50, and a delay to the 29 March Brexit day, to win them round to her deal”, and right on cue, up pop three ministers trying to do exactly that.  Sack them for going against government policy?  Give them promotion, more like.  Whether the planned vote on Wednesday is being postponed because she's afraid of the 'rebels', or whether it's all part of the same attempt to ratchet up the pressure on the ERG is an imponderable.  And one to which she herself will only decide which is the correct answer after events have played themselves out.
It’s a devious, dishonest, and utterly dishonourable way of treating parliament and dissenting opinion – so wholly in line with standard May operating procedure.  But will it work?  I don’t know.  The anger of the ERG crowd suggests that they might be taking this threat seriously, but I tend to the view that she’s left it too late.  Opinions have become too deep-rooted, too strongly expressed, too difficult to row back on.  Human pride and self-respect often make it difficult for people to cave in, even when they know that they should, and it seems likely to me that making the ERG bunch even angrier than they already were is more likely to be counter-productive at this stage.  The three ministers might well end up being forced to do as they 'threatened' to do - but with so little time left, the PM is more likely to see that as a friendly act than a rebellion.  'Some big boys (and a girl) made me do it' might just play better to her ears than 'It was my fault'.

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