Kate Ironside is a Senior Lecturer in Journalism at the University of Northampton and a former political journalist. She spent 13 years at Westminster, working for Central Press, the Daily Express and BBC Westminster and, for 17 years, wrote a weekly award-winning column on the European Union for the Western Morning News. She sits on the executive board of the Broadcast Journalism Training Council and has written: “Reporting Power”, the official BJTC textbook on public affairs.
The Prime Minister is calling her opponents’ bluff. Even at this late stage when all the odds seem stacked against her, Theresa May is actively daring MPs to vote down her Brexit deal.
The parliamentary arithmetic seems hopeless – from her perspective. The House of Commons is out of control – from her perspective. The power of the government whips is broken. And yet she ploughs on, determined to frame the choice before MPs this way: her deal, no deal or no Brexit. It is astonishing.
She knows her party is broken in three: the arch Brexiteers, determined to push through Brexit at any cost, the arch Remainers, equally determined to stop the process in its tracks in anyway possible and then there’s the group caught piggy in the middle, mesmerised, appalled and just desperate to avoid disaster.
Her strategy now is to maximise the size of that middle group, drive enough, just enough MPs to support her deal on Tuesday for fear of something worse. That’s what today’s instalment of the Brexit debate – on the economic consequences is intended to do.
She needs, to put it bluntly, more Roger Gales. The veteran Conservative MP for North Thanet is a longstanding, lively critic of the European Union and yet will back her deal on Tuesday because he dare not risk a no deal, a hard Brexit.
Why? The answer lies in the location of his constituency. North Thanet is in Kent, the gateway for so much of our trade with Europe. So much attention has been focused on the dangers of a hard border in Northern Ireland. Gale however is horrified by the prospect of a hard border in Dover. He believes that should that happen, the UK will be “stuffed.”
He has talked to the Dover Harbour Board, to the Freight Transport Association and the Kent police. He told MPs this week: “If those shutters come down, the traffic backs up at about a mile an hour. That is out of the port of Dover, up the M20, up the M26 and on to the M25, and then we are stuffed. If the M25 comes to a grinding halt, south London comes to a grinding halt and soon Birmingham will come to a grinding halt.”
Arch-Brexiteers will argue this is the final blast of Project Fear but it is the only card left in the Prime Minister’s hand. She needs to deflect MPs’ attention away from their ability to block a no deal, she needs to deflect MPs’ attention away from the inevitable compromises and messiness of her Brexit deal and focus their minds on the Gale scenario. And just as the Conservative Prime Minister Edward Heath needed the support of at least some opposition MPs to take us into the European club in the 1970s, so she today needs the support of at least some opposition MPs to keep alive her deal to take us out. None of them appear to be offering her that lifeline. It seems hopeless.
Within the margins of the parliamentary debate, she is today dangling before waverers the prospect of MPs getting a say on whether or not we enter the indefinite backstop of her transitional deal but it is desperate stuff.
What we are seeing is the reality of a minority Government that is in danger of falling apart. The normal rules of politics have been suspended. We have a Prime Minister ploughing on, heading, it appears, into the abyss, seemingly untouched by the resignations of ten ministers and the very real prospect of seeing her Brexit plan defeated in the Commons. Other Prime Ministers have quit under much less pressure. The captain seems ready, if necessary, to go down with the ship.