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Between Gibraltar and a Hard Place

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By:Ralph Berry | November 28, 2018
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The crisis in British politics deepens. Everything changed Sunday, when the European Union, without further debate, approved the Withdrawal Agreement that is Theresa May’s work. That Agreement is now set in stone, with no further changes possible for the EU/UK. And the dynamics of politics are revolutionized.

The Withdrawal Agreement has been greeted with dismay and derision once its provisions were announced. Boris Johnson (Daily Telegraph, 26 November) writes that the British negotiators have folded like napkins, and have left the UK as a vassal state. Britain has locked itself into captivity and handed the EU jailors the key. The accuracy of this judgment is confirmed by the fact: the EU with its 27 member states made no trouble at all over finalizing the deal, but happily agreed to the surrender document. The cool and cerebral Ambrose Evans-Phillips wrote (Telegraph), “I want to scream.”

But now comes the fulcrum of change. Hitherto speculation has centered on the 48 names needed for the Conservative Party to mount a vote of no confidence in its leader. They never got there: regicide is still a high crime. Voting against the Government is not. In the next couple of weeks—December 12th is likely—the Agreement will have to be put to the Commons. 90 named Tories have already committed themselves in public to opposing the Agreement. They will be joined by the Labour Party, the Scot Nats, Plaid Cymru, some LibDems, and the D.U.P. who represent what Churchill called the “stiff-necked Ulstermen.”  It is arithmetically impossible to win a majority over that coalition. 

So May has announced a campaign to bring the public on to her side, already dubbed “the Brexit road-show.” She will tour the country with her appeal for the Withdrawal Agreement. It is hard to see it succeeding. She cannot do revivalist meetings in the style of President Trump—who would turn up? If she goes the knock-on-doors route, there are dangers there, as Gordon Brown found. He was picked up by the microphone referring to a perfectly decent Labour woman as a “bigot”—and she had only asked a question about immigration. May now seeks a TV debate with Jeremy Corbyn, a desperate ploy indeed. The presumption of TV debates is equality, and a Prime Minister should never admit formal equality to the challenger.  Margaret Thatcher never did. 

And then comes another problem, Gibraltar. In the final stages of the EU consent, May had to buy off Spain’s veto with a written promise to open talks on shared sovereignty with Spain. This has been hailed as a triumph by Pedro Sanchez, the Prime Minister, and the Spanish media. But Gibraltar is lodged deep in the British psyche, and May will find public opinion against her on that ground alone. There is also the matter of American policy: U.S. geopolitical planners have no taste for the status of Gibraltar being in any way threatened. Gibraltar controls the West end of the Mediterranean, as it always has done. For a striking illustration, see Das Boot, which for my money is the best war movie to come out of WW2. The U-Boat captain’s decision to pass through the Strait on the surface, at night, is detected by the patrolling destroyers. He has to order a crash dive and must endure a relentless series of depth-charges. I doubt that things are easier today for any successor to the Kriegsmarine. 

All of which means that the political question for the Tories is posed in a different form. Until the other day, the question was: Do you attack the Prime Minister? Now, the question is: Do you support the Prime Minister? Do you dare to support the Prime Minister? If the Withdrawal Agreement fails, its chief sponsor fails, the Government falls. It would be replaced by another Conservative Administration. There are many able and ambitious Tory MPs whose career prospects light up like Christmas trees with a change of Government. They will be assessing the scene with the objectivity of true professionals.      

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