May is the villain in political pantomime

Posted By: December 09, 2017

Patrick Murphy. Irish News. Belfast. Saturday, December 9, 2017

Victory for Dublin, a climb-down by London and a dose of reality for the unionists in Belfast—that appears to be the nationalist consensus on yesterday’s revised deal between Britain and the EU.

As nationalist euphoria sweeps the (politically partitioned) island, the villain in this political pantomime has been Theresa May. Her diplomatic ability and political competence have been rubbished by many on this side of the Irish Sea and, we are told, her days as prime minister are numbered.

But as usual in Britain’s dealings with Ireland, all is not what it seems.

Doubts about Mrs. May’s political ability arose when she apparently “forgot” to get the DUP’s support before a selectively leaked London-Dublin deal had been agreed.

Some say she genuinely believed the DUP were on board. Others argue that she knew they were not and hoped to bounce them into an agreement.

If you are not convinced by either explanation, you can have two other conspiracy theories. One is that Mrs. May hoped to exploit tensions in the DUP by getting the agreement of Arlene Foster, but not Nigel Dodds.

The other theory is that the DUP knew about the deal, but decided the best way to tackle it was to stay quiet and then ambush Mrs. May. Both are possible but hardly probable.

So that just leaves one final possible explanation. Mrs. May was bluffing in her apparent agreement with the Irish government. She only partially briefed the DUP, anticipated their response and knew that Scotland, Wales, and London, would react as they did.

That would allow her to explain to her cabinet (which has yet to agree what type of Brexit it wants) how difficult it is to reach an agreement. Without DUP support there would be an election and possibly no Brexit of any sort.

So the only way to reconcile conflicting demands from Dublin and the DUP would be to have all the UK in a trading and customs arrangement with Ireland, either in a specific British-Irish deal or part of a wider EU common customs area.

Yesterday’s agreement took a huge step in that direction. A bit far-fetched, you say, which reflects the prevailing nationalist view of Mrs. May.

But there is some evidence that she was bluffing. During the referendum campaign, she argued for the UK to remain in the EU. Nick Clegg calls her “an inner remainer.”

In a secret meeting with investment bankers in Goldman Sachs a month before the referendum, she said that a pro-Brexit vote would drive private companies, particularly in financial services, out of the UK.

The British economy would be damaged, it could lead to the break-up of the UK, negotiating a trade deal would be hard and gaining access to the single market would be costly. Her public pronouncements were less strident and she kept a low profile, in case the vote went in favor of Brexit.It did,  and she became prime minister. It was therefore surprising when, against her personal beliefs, she later announced that the UK would go for a hard Brexit. This was presumably a ploy to keep the hardline Brexiteers on board.

After the apparent shambles of last Monday, she has now brought her cabinet and most of her party to the point where it appears almost inevitable that all of the UK will have to be in the same customs and free trade area as Ireland.

It is hard to see how that could be achieved without the UK remaining in something similar to the EU’s existing common customs area.

Meanwhile, Ireland’s support from the EU has come at an interesting price. On Thursday the Dublin government agreed to join the EU’s Permanent Structured Co-operation Agreement (PESCO), which Independent TD, Mick Wallace, said was in effect an EU army. Sinn Féin said the decision undermined Ireland’s independence and sovereignty.

Theresa May will retain control over Britain’s foreign and defense policies, while possibly retaining access to the EU’s common trading area. So who won what this week?

If you disagree that Mrs. May was bluffing last Monday, you have to go back to the earlier DUP-related theories. But this pantomime is not about Ireland.

Mrs. May is involved in a high-stakes Tory party poker game, which will determine its policy and performance for the next twenty years. Ireland is just another card in the pack.

So is Theresa May incompetent? She may be, but her incompetence has landed her in a position to offset the risks of Brexit, which she articulated before the referendum. For an incompetent woman, that is a pretty good achievement.