Time to put the country first

Here in the U.K., Theresa May remains in office, if not in power, at the pleasure of the others in the Conservative Party who want her job but dare not mount a challenge until they are sure they won't be blamed for provoking a general election which Jeremy Corbyn might win.

Not exactly a position of strength from which to conduct the most important negotiation this country has faced since the Second World War, or even to persuade other governments to take us seriously. Not long ago, the British foreign secretary was a global player. Today, he seems content to make headlines by telling our European partners to "go whistle".

The problem with leaving Theresa May in charge, but with no authority, is that UK policy on Brexit will continue to drift. The good news of the election result is that she is no longer strong enough to impose her own uncompromising views on the primacy of ECJ jurisdiction and immigration. The bad news is that she is vulnerable to even a small group of noisy Eurosceptic MPs demanding the hardest possible Brexit.

If the prime minister is ready to stand up to the scorched earth brigade and listen to the pragmatism of her chancellor of the exchequer and others who want the least damaging Brexit possible, at the end of a transitional period giving us the time to get it right, we are in with a chance.

If not, and Theresa May sticks to her hardline positions or to the Boris Johnson formula of having cake and eating it, we are headed for disaster.

Some of those more concerned about the national interest than ideological Brexit purity have been hoping that, if presented with a Brexit deal which is demonstrably worse for the country then the status quo, Parliament would refuse to vote it through and call instead for a second referendum.

The trouble here is that the present government, with or without Theresa May at the helm, would not survive a parliamentary vote disowning its Brexit deal, and wouldn't have the authority to call a second referendum if it wanted to. Instead, voters would be asked yet again to trot off to the polling booths in an effort to give the country a viable government - just as the two-year time limit for the Article 50 negotiations on U.K. withdrawal from the EU expired. We would be left with both a political crisis and the worst of all outcomes – no deal and no time to try again.

What we need, therefore, is a radically different approach to the muddle we have seen since the referendum. We need an end to the posturing of ministers who claim undying loyalty to Theresa May but consistently fail to put the national interest ahead of their personal ambition. It is a sign of the times that the one senior minister who has credible plans for minimising the Brexit damage, Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond, is languishing behind nearly all the other contenders for the top job in the in-house polling of the Conservative Party.

Subordinating the national interest to party politics is not, of course, new. David Cameron agreed to pull the Conservatives out of the EPP grouping in the European Parliament back in 2005 in order to win his party's leadership, guaranteeing that British views would count for less in the future in Brussels and Strasbourg. When that wasn't enough to stop his party "banging on about Europe", he thought he could buy off the Eurosceptics by promising to hold a referendum if he won the 2015 general election.

Labour politicians weren't much braver. In this year's election campaign, Jeremy Corbyn's real views on Brexit were skilfully disguised out of concern that they might frighten off people wanting to vote Labour in the hope of moderating Theresa May's hard line.

We can't go on like this. Businesses are already moving people and operations abroad and doctors and nurses are leaving the NHS as Brexit uncertainty continues, inflation rises, growth slows, earnings stagnate, our competitiveness declines and consumers run down their savings.

If we are to avoid causing irreparable damage to the country, and to our international standing, politicians of all persuasions need to come together in an informed, cross-party approach designed to secure the best possible Brexit outcome. Unfortunately, there is little sign of that happening, or of the prime minister accepting the need for a change of course if she is to avoid rejection of a hard Brexit deal by the two-thirds of MPs and three-quarters of members of the House of Lords who are fundamentally pro-European and increasingly worried by where the country is headed.

Theresa May's current view seems to be that working with other parties on domestic issues might help her survive but that on Brexit nothing needs changing from her Lancaster House speech of 17 January. In other words, no single market or customs union, and no compromise on freedom of movement or ECJ jurisdiction - except during the transitional period, when we will have no choice but to accept the rulings of the European Court. Why is it taking ministers so long to admit that the nationals of other EU countries are critical to the functioning of the NHS, our agriculture and every one of our service industries?

There can be no guarantee that a more inclusive, national approach will deliver an acceptable deal - after all, the other member states have little incentive to make things easy for us. But a united approach could make a difference, particularly if British ministers can grasp that tone and relationships are as important a part of a winning strategy as an ability to thump the table. It is hard to believe that such a great country as ours is heading for self-destruction as a result of a vote by just 37% of the electorate to leave the EU on terms which none understood. The public mood may be shifting, as reality dawns. Let's hope the politicians are listening.

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