May’s Brexit plan was a disaster

Polly Toynbee

Theresa May’s statement to the Commons and her letter to the people are profoundly dishonest. This dutiful vicar’s daughter is not telling the truth about all the country loses if her deal is passed, and she knows it. As the underdog assailed on every side, her personal polling has risen as people take pity on her, in her relentless obstinacy. But she is not presenting true options on Brexit and never did, from the day she entered Downing Street.

Dissembling, she presents this as a great national compromise – that’s her last-ditch pitch for her two-week persuasion tour. She poses as the moderate, reasonable voice in the great Westminster brouhaha. In her letter to the people she urges us, on 29 March 2019, to “put aside labels of leave and remain for good”. “I want that to be a moment of renewal and reconciliation for our whole country.” The hypocrisy is breathtaking, since her deal offers neither. Hers is a hard Brexit, leaving our privileged place in the European Union for an unmapped destination largely beyond our control, terms and conditions unknown.

There would have been a chance of something better if, on her first day in office, she had said: “The will of the people is finely split. I will represent the 48% as well as the 52% and strive to find a middle way.” Instead she painted her hard red Brexit lines and rudely abused the 48% as elite “citizens of nowhere”. (How can 48% be an elite?) She sought to appease implacable Brextremists in a vain bid to hold together a party that long ago lost its senses, infiltrated by a cadre of rightist revolutionary wreckers.

Had she appealed to remainers from the start, her deal could have met Labour’s six tests. Had she proposed Norway – staying in the European Economic Area, joining the European Free Trade Association with a vision of an influential EU outer ring – she could have won wide support. Labour would have been in a quandary – and might have split. Instead she failed to placate her Brexiteers, her own party is close to fracture, Labour is more united, and remainers are gaining public support. Her deal gives away everything in exchange for virtually nothing, and it looks doomed.

Restrain your sympathy: stubbornness is no virtue. Don’t be beguiled by her “heart and soul” attempt to win the nation over with “renewal and reconciliation” hogwash. She volunteered for a tough task, but she could hardly have done it any worse.

“Get on with it!” splashes the Express, the Mail agreeing, both Brexiteers sensing national impatience, a public yawning through acronyms and aggravated by so many politicians behaving madly, as her cabinet postures, blusters and resigns. May implies that limping over the exit line is the end, but in reality it’s the starting gun for interminable years of brain-aching trade talks that cover virtually every important aspect of British life, played with a miserable hand.

Her letter pledges a “brighter future for our country”, and the polls show widespread gloom. Look at the empty promises. She will control our borders – though when home secretary she failed, as the steepest immigration rise was from outside the EU. Her claim that “putting an end to vast annual payments to the EU” will deliver £394m a week for the NHS is doubly mendacious. As the health committee chair, Sarah Wollaston, tweeted: “There is NO financial bonanza linked to Brexit only a massive penalty for the NHS, research, public health & social care.” And watch us keep paying for crucial agreements.

End the jurisdiction of the European court of justice? No, all trade deals require an external adjudicator. “Out of the common fisheries policy” with “full control over our waters”? That’s her biggest whopper – we will still exchange fishing quotas for the right to sell 90% of our fish to EU markets. Besides, our own rotten government let our richer fishermen sell their quotas to foreign companies, and denied fair quotas to our small coastal fishermen. As for “a system of agricultural support that works for us”, farmers can expect short shrift in subsidies once they compete with the NHS, social care, and schools from a Brexit-depleted Treasury.

There’s no room here to list each fib. From frictionless borders (not in the deal), to security from terror and organised crime (ask the police), her sunny assertions are disreputable. As for protecting “the integrity of our United Kingdom”, this marks the moment at which remainer Scotland and remainer Northern Ireland shift further away.

Finally, insulting our intelligence, May’s letter tells us her “brighter future” will see her “tackling burning injustices”. Well, what’s stopping her? Before Christmas she could set out regulations for universal credit to end untold poverty and suffering, restore its cuts, stop the five-week wait, and halt sanctions and brutal work capability assessments.

“With Brexit settled we will be able to focus our energies on the many other important issues,” her letter says. Oh yes, how I long to return to writing about the plight of the NHS, with winter approaching with no money. I wish her vanished social care white paper would emerge, and yearn for any sign of tackling housing and schools crises. But the sheer scale of the Brexit disaster sweeps all before it. As the independent NIESR report shows, with similar upcoming official estimates, Brexit will drain Treasury coffers that should be funding these austerity-stricken services. There will be less money: the FT reports a $1 trillion outflow of equity already since the referendum (Jacob Rees-Mogg’s among it).

This is not a compromise but a bad Brexit – and no, there is no risk of a no deal, as parliament will block it. MPs, be not swayed by bribes in honours and private member’s bills. Rees-Mogg’s European Research Group, mini-me Trumps, have demanded a bill to outlaw .50 calibre monster guns be dropped. Shockingly, the home secretary Sajid Javid, a leadership contender, caved in.

Why are remainers Ken Clarke and Nicky Morgan backing down, and voting for May’s deal, while the ERG bends not a millimetre? Clarke and Morgan perhaps reckon the deal is dead anyway, so they may as well look reasonable in order to better influence later Plan Bs or Cs – Norway or a People’s Vote. That’s an error. They should use their eloquence against it. Their compromise will influence many others, and risk May’s deal squeezing through.

They may think, like Michael Gove and other Brexiters, that everything is still to play for once we leave: la lutte continue – the fight goes on to the death between hard, soft and return-to-the-EU warriors. But once we row across the Brexit Styx on this leaky raft of a deal, the future could hardly look less “bright”. Any MPs tempted to “get on with it” and agree this nation-destroying deal, think again. Hold firm.