Theresa May’s hated compromise is the only workable Brexit on offer

Rachel Cunliffe
Follow Rachel
The withdrawal agreement is the only way to square the multidimensional Brexit circle (Source: Getty)

“The deal we have negotiated is the best and indeed only deal available.”

So claimed a dejected Theresa May on Tuesday night, smarting in the aftermath of the fourth biggest defeat for a sitting government in modern parliamentary history.

Obviously, parliament does not agree. An overwhelming majority of MPs want May to go back to Brussels for the umpteenth time and demand something better.

The trouble is that, for all the problems with the withdrawal agreement, May is right. If you think like this Prime Minister does, the unhappy compromise that defines the withdrawal agreement is the only way to square the multidimensional Brexit circle.

When it comes to Brexit, the old Jewish saying “ask two Jews, get three opinions” seems apt.

A multitude of different – often contradictory – visions for Britain outside the EU were put forward during the referendum campaign, and aligning them all into a Brexit that fits every Leave voter’s personal preferences was always going to be an impossible task.

So what have May’s priorities been, and how did they converge to form the deal she still clings to?

The first is her strong sense of duty towards the integrity of the Conservative party.

Faced with 48 per cent of voters desperate to stay in the EU, someone else might have sought a softer Brexit from the get-go – perhaps moving to be part of the European Economic Area (EEA) instead, staying within the EU’s customs union and Single Market. The UK would still be leaving the EU, but cleaving as close as possible to existing institutions.

This so-called “Norway option” would have likely gained cross-party support and partially appeased Remainers – who feel that almost half the country has been overlooked since 2016 – while minimising business uncertainty and economic disruption.

It would, however, have split the Tory party. Imagine how much louder the calls of “betrayal” from Boris Johnson, Jacob Rees-Mogg, and the European Research Group (ERG) would have been if Brexit were to morph into EEA membership. After decades of campaigning to leave the EU, Tory backbenchers could well have thrown in the towel and left the party en masse.

A different Prime Minister, with different parliamentary arithmetic, might have risked it. But May, born into a Tory family and raised on the Conservative ethos, will not allow the party to split on her watch.

The eurosceptics who have twice rejected her deal have two main Brexit visions of their own. Unfortunately, both risk crossing the other of May’s impenetrable red lines.

The first is for a straightforward trade deal of the type that Canada enjoys. Some Brexiteers have rushed to point out that the EU has actually offered such a deal, if the Prime Minister would only take it.

What they neglect to mention is that this generous EU offer only applies to Britain, not to the whole of the UK. Northern Ireland would have to remain in the customs union, resulting in a border with mainland Britain in the Irish Sea, not to mention splintering May’s fragile alliance with the DUP.

A UK-wide trade deal, which would see a customs barrier of some kind between Northern Ireland and the Republic, has been categorically ruled out by the EU until the border issue can be resolved. A trade deal as things stand would therefore leave May as the Prime Minister who broke up the United Kingdom.

The other Brexiteer offer is leaving with no deal at all. But this also comes with constitutional risks – not only in Northern Ireland, but in Scotland too, which voted Remain by 62 per cent.

First minister Nicola Sturgeon has spent nearly three years accusing May of ignoring Scotland’s voice, fanning the Scottish nationalist flames and laying the groundwork for a second independence referendum.

While no one knows the exact impact of no-deal, there have been dire warnings of economic instability and even recession.

While Northern Ireland faces the political and economic consequences of a hard border with the Republic, Scottish businesses will also suffer and unemployment may rise, fuelling the rhetoric that Westminster has yet again acted against Scotland’s interests.

May’s mulish sense of civic duty will not allow her to gamble on an independent Scotland and a referendum on Irish reunification. She is, after all, the leader of the Conservative and Unionist Party.

The withdrawal agreement, then, is the only scrap of overlap between these competing priorities.

That’s why May has stuck with it through cabinet revolts, resignations, leadership challenges, and two overwhelming parliamentary defeats. It’s why she is almost certain to bring it back for a third meaningful vote before 29 March – because, ultimately, she truly believes that it is the best deal on offer.

When she does, ERG MPs have a decision to make. If they do not get behind this deal, they may end up with no Brexit at all, via another referendum or a Norway-style fudge.

Or, they may get the Brexit they claim to want, at the cost of seeing one or even two of the UK’s nations secede from the rest of the country.

May has spent her premiership fighting against that risk. Are they really prepared to bear responsibility for the break-up of the UK?

If not, it’s time for some soul-searching. As the Tory MP Tom Tugendhat so eloquently put it this week, “take the damn deal”.

City A.M.'s opinion pages are a place for thought-provoking views and debate. These views are not necessarily shared by City A.M.