Ziggy May’s Brexit Deal From Mars

Drawing by Nathaniel St. Clair

“Narrow, rigid, unimaginative, sly, secretive and wholly lacking in the political skills necessary to win over voters or build alliances, rarely can a leader have looked less suited to the task before them. This is the consensus view of the British prime minister….”

Robert Shrimsley

Only readers of The Financial Times would probably have heard of Mr Shrimsley. To have this writer on the staff of the rightwing FT, the UK’s equivalent of The Wall Street Journal, deliver this stinging and spot-on assessment of the Tory Theresa May’s handling of Brexit is somewhat startling.

A rightwing UK paper, like its American counterparts, is expected as a taken-for-granted formality to deliver the propaganda goods for whichever rightwing leader is in situ.

Something therefore is in the air. But what is its basis, and what on earth is Ukania doing about Brexit?

The Tories, who have been in charge of Brexit from the moment their ex-prime minister “Dodgy Dave” Cameron called for the referendum on leaving the EU, have never been serious about the complex processes involved in divorcing from Brussels.

The Tories are hopelessly divided on Brexit (duh!), which creates a fatal situational opposition between splitting their party (perhaps irrevocably) and achieving a Brexit deal in the purported national interest.

No one reflects these divisions more than May. She first voted Remain in the referendum. Then when Dodgy Dave bailed on politics rather than face the consequences of his disastrous referendum, she became prime minister by a vote within her own party (without being ratified by voters at a general election), and pushed initially for a soft Brexit.

Ahead then of the Labour opposition in opinion polls by around 20 points, the opportunistic May called a snap general election in 2017.

Alas for May, Jeremy Corbyn led a brilliant Labour campaign, and the Tories confounded the opinion polls by losing their absolute majority in this election.

After the election the Tories could only govern with the support of the Northern Ireland Unionists (DUP), who want a hard Brexit in order to forestall a frictionless border (“the Irish backstop”) with the EU-member Eire to the south.

May also coughed-up billions in bribes to the DUP for their support of her now minority party in parliament.

The DUP won’t budge on the issue of the Irish backstop, so May’s latest ploy was to try to run out the clock on the initial Brexit deadline (29thMarch), thereby making a hard or no-deal Brexit inevitable just so she can retain the support of the DUP and the Brexiter retro-imperialists in her party in order to remain PM.

May is thus hostage to the DUP and the retro-imperialists, who together have backed her into the corner of a no-deal Brexit.

May, doggedly to the point where many question her sanity, has kept pushing her own version of a supposed Brexit deal, involving a meaningless fudge on the Irish frictionless border that neither the DUP and the EU will accept, and which has already been voted down twice in parliament.

May’s desperate attempt to put her already dead-in-the-water deal to a third vote in parliament was however forestalled by the estimable Speaker John Bercow (about whom I wrote in a previous CounterPunch article).

Invoking Erskine May’s Manual of Parliamentary Practice (1844), Bercow (himself a lawyer) ruled that the same piece of legislation could not be brought up for another vote in the same session of parliament without being altered in a “materially different” way.

Erskine May, who was then Speaker, clearly intended here to forestall the possibility of a government introducing the same piece of legislation over and over again in the hope of grinding (or perhaps bribing in incremental steps) the opposition into submission.

After all, in nearly every country, even those professing to be democracies, most politicians can be bought if the price is right.

In Ukania, this price tends to be low in monetary terms.

All it takes, usually, is the promise of a knighthood or peerage. The count of arseholes, knuckleheads, or crooks—those still living and not counting the dead—being bribed with one or both of these is beyond belief.

Stymied by Speaker Bercow, and with almost no time to modify the deal she had kept on the table, the prime minister had no alternative but to scurry off to Brussels to beg for an extension of the impending Brexit deadline (29thMarch).

May at first envisaged a long extension, but the hardline Brexiters, suspecting that a prolonged extension would simply give Remainers more time to rile-up the public against Brexit, pushed her into a change of heart, and May opted for a short extension instead.

May therefore asked the EU for a Brexit delay until 30th June, but the by-now exasperated eurocrats cut this down to 12thMay, on condition that parliament held a vote on her deal.

Since May’s proposal will now include provision for a new Brexit date, Speaker Bercow’s stipulation– that a third vote can take place only if it was“materially different” from previous versions– will now be met.

However, there is no chance of May’s agreement being passed in parliament after being voted-down twice already, and a no-deal Brexit now seems virtually inevitable.

But with respect to whatever proposed Brexit “deal” that emanates from the Mars of Ziggy May, nothing can be regarded as inevitable until—whenever.

One possibility is that May will face a vote of “no confidence” between now and 12thMay, which if carried, would in all probability precipitate a general election.

May has already survived one such vote, when craven Tory opponents of her Brexit policy voted for their own political futures, and thus hers, by keeping her in office in order to preempt a general election the Tories would almost certainly lose.

However, one thing is certain—even as May runs out of road and drives the Tory bus over a cliff, these deviously opportunistic critics within her own party will keep her in office as long as their political futures are tied to her remaining there.

Their mottos as they strive to save their political skins: “Now is the time for cool heads”, “It’s not the time to change the captain of the ship”, and so on.

May, as one would expect, is using the threat of a general election to keep potential Brexiter mutineers in line.

Nevertheless, as things get considerably more desperate, these Brexiters may decide to give themselves a yard-more road by deposing May, who has already lost all authority over her party, in a coup that would see her replaced by someone presumed to be less inept, general election or no.

For now May has finally realized that a 3rdvote on her deal will have the same outcome as the previous votes, so in place of this vote the House of Commons will take 3 “indicative” votes (chosen by Speaker Bercow from the several submitted). They are:

The Tory backbench indicative vote plan

Submitted by the Tory former ministers Oliver Letwin and Dominic Grieve, and signed by more than 120 cross-party MPs, this calls for Commons business on Wednesday to be set aside for a series of indicative votes. It does not specify what options will be voted on, or how the votes will take place.

The Labour indicative vote plan

More flexible than the Letwin/Grieve amendment, this acknowledges support for various Brexit plans, and requests that the government “provide sufficient parliamentary time this week for this house to find a majority for a different approach”.

Other plan to block no deal

This says that if the UK is 7 calendar days from a no-deal Brexit, the House should be recalled to debate a motion on whether or not MPs approve the move to a no-deal Brexit.

It is easy to see that these options are the equivalent of punting the ball down the field, to avoid the hard things that need doing: deposing May and holding a general election, and having a second referendum if the need for one is demonstrated.

As said above, May’s hard-Brexiter enemies in her own party can’t face the prospect of a general election they are likely to lose– for a certain kind of politician the likelihood of being kicked out of office, and losing that sleek black ministerial limousine, concentrates the mind wonderfully.


Kenneth Surin teaches at Duke University, North Carolina.  He lives in Blacksburg, Virginia.