The Little Napoleon of Brexit

It's an interesting gambit. The Prime Minister gazing manically into a camera, cringe-smirking, and muttering: "I know what you're thinking. I'm on your side."

Theresa May is apparently hoping that,  by appealing 'over the heads of politicians', she can summon into existence a sufficient will-to-Brexit-on-her-terms that the MPs will quake, and capitulate. Having twice rejected her deal with the European Union, with record margins, they will feel such a thunderbolt of popular anger that dozens of them will switch sides.

I am really not convinced by this wager, but I can see a certain political logic to it. Almost all polls disclose a fracturing of public opinion. There is a parliamentary deadlock. Both of the dominant parties are split on the major issue. This is a situation in which an adept leadership could achieve a weak form of what Gramsci called 'Bonapartism'. That is, relying on a layer of passive popular support, and fusing with the higher reaches of the state apparatus, such a leader could transcend the existing party alignments and indeed impose a solution to a major national crisis.

However, as someone must have told May at some point, this ain't it chief. She is not that leader. She is not that far-sighted, and she isn't that popular. If she was that popular, she wouldn't hesitate to go for an election, or another plebiscite. And she is far too dogmatically committed to the unity of her party, at all costs, to achieve the kind of transcendent status that she seeks. The sole affective basis of her identification with "the people" was supposed to be her articulation of the ruling national sentiment on Brexit: impatience, irritation and ennui. Supposedly, on the basis of the antiquated 'televised address to the nation', May is supposed to make herself the conduit of this sentiment, and hitch it to her demand that parliament vote for a deal that they have twice rejected.

Let's be clear. Theresa May has had almost three years to negotiate a politically viable deal with the European Union. If she had wanted to organise some sort of cross-party consensus on the transitional framework, she had the means to do so. Instead, we got the Lancaster House speech, in which she drew up 'red lines' to appease the Tory hard-right. And we got David Davis and his sidekick put in charge of the Brexit process, until they made such a mess of it that trusted apparatchik Olly Robbins had to take over.

And look how well that went. Davis was allowed to go into negotiations insisting that the UK could impose its own negotiating timetable, its own framework, and refuse payment of any 'divorce bill'. On all these points, he was comprehensively humiliated. He did not have the leverage to achieve any of it. May's 'hard Brexit' rhetoric also predictably fell apart. The game was given away with her first Brexit White Paper, in which she sought the softest possible Brexit commensurable with the unity of her party. That is, she sought to reconcile the strategic interest of large British capital in keeping within the orbit of the European Union, with the position of her insurgent rightists that the UK should be out of the customs union and out of ECJ jurisdiction.

At no point in this process has May sought anything other than the most cosmetic discussions with opposition parties. In all such meetings, collective or individual, opposition politicians have reported that May not only doesn't deviate from her established position one iota, but she reads from a script. Some of the reporting insinuates that May is a bit mad. Well, she probably is: most party leaders are. Corbyn is the only remotely sane one, which is why he comes across poorly on television. But the bottom line is that she is thoroughly dogmatic. Her priority, unyieldingly, is to force through the only deal which the EU will give her based on her current red lines.

This deal, that has now been humiliatingly defeated twice, and which has provoked her Remainers to as much as fury as her Brexiters, is not "the best deal negotiable" as she has claimed. And her problem is not, as she also claimed, that parliament will not instruct her on what a better deal would look like. Her problem is that she wanted a supermajority, so that she could autocratically override opposition, and instead had her majority devastated. Her problem is that she is unwilling to do any of the things that would be necessary to get a parliamentary majority for a deal. She refuses to countenance even such concessions as would leave her red lines intact, such as concessions on regional investment or workers' rights. She appears to think offering incentives, or at least detoxifying her deal for MPs who are not in her own party, is beyond the pale. She seems to take the extraordinary view that it is the job of parliament to expedite her deal, rather than her job to win consent.

So May has hectored, scolded, run down the clock, blamed parliament. After claiming that no deal was better than a bad deal, she relied on apocalyptic no deal augury to get her over the line. And failed. She has played chicken with the House of Commons and, momentarily, lost. 

It is extraordinary. May now returns to the European Council, less than ten days before the Brexit deadline on 29th March, to ask for an Article 50 extension. And she will ask for an extension on the basis of defending a position that has been humiliatingly defeated twice. An extension which, based on Donald Tusk's statement earlier today, the EC really doesn't want to give her.

What, indeed, is the EC's incentive here? May has made it clear that she is asking for more time to do more of the same. And why would that work? In parliament, and in her televised address, she scapegoated and scolded the politicians whom she must win over, if she wants to pass a deal. The result was that a lot of wavering Tories, who had previously switched to her side, switched right back. Tusk's statement implied that a longer extension on Article 50, based on a fundamentally different approach, might be available. But that would require new leadership, a new negotiating team, a new set of red lines. Or a general election, or a commitment to a new referendum. All of which May has ruled out.

So, the only incentive for the EC to offer a short extension on Article 50 to this government appears to be that it will delay a serious economic crisis in Britain spilling over into a parlous eurozone economy. And if that is their only incentive, then it's just a question of whether they think it helps the deal's chances to force the issue now, or to let it drag out for a few months. Tusk's statement earlier today suggests they may prefer to force the issue now. Why not, if they think 'no deal' would be the answer in June?

Hence, May's miniature Bonapartism, as absurd as it is, potentially has one last possible source of leverage. Panic.

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