Brexit Update 5: The Maybot Speaks
The only “clarity” that emerged from yesterday’s statement by Theresa May was that it made abundantly clear why she has been nicknamed “The Maybot”. She likes to repeat over and over again one phrase, as though it has been programmed into her. During the 2017 snap general election, it was “strong and stable”. This description now being manifestly non-applicable to her current situation, she has been reprogrammed with two new phrases. One – looking forward hopefully from the current weakness and instability of her government – is “the brighter future”, sometimes varied to “the bright future”. Every speech she makes at present contains this phrase at least once; and she brought it into her statement right at the end. The other, which she repeated yesterday over and again in the statement, in her reply to Corbyn’s response and in replies to questions from MPs, is (in variable forms): “The only way to prevent No Deal is to vote for a deal”. At one point, she had repeated it so often that the programming went slightly haywire; she said “Opposing the deal is not enough to stop it”, correcting herself immediately afterwards with “Opposing No Deal is not enough to stop it. We must vote for a deal”. Even robots can make Freudian slips: “opposing the deal is not enough to stop it” reflects her robotic determination to force her deal through Parliament in the face of all opposition; she has been programmed to do this and will not be stopped.
She spent some time (to loud jeers from MPs) emphasising her commitment to workers’ rights, environmental protection and health and safety, claiming that her government has a strong record in these areas. This was clearly intended to appeal to Labour MPs to vote for her deal. But her main message was “The talks are at a crucial stage and we must all hold our nerve”.
Nowhere, however, did she present any sign of progress that might encourage us to do so. She told us at the beginning of her statement that the Brexit Secretary, Stephen Barclay, met on Monday with the EU’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, to discuss with him ideas that are being floated by the Alternative Arrangements Working Group (AAWG), a parliamentary group she has set up to discuss “alternative arrangements” to the backstop, in accordance with the Brady Amendment. In his response, Jeremy Corbyn asked her to specify what progress the AAWG had made; in reply, she simply repeated what she had said in the statement.
She acknowledged in the statement that when she met Jean-Claude Juncker, the President of the European Commission, he reiterated the EU’s position that they will not reopen the Withdrawal Agreement. But she said a little later on (to loud jeers from MPs): “Having secured an agreement with the EU for further talks, we now need some time to complete the process”. She promised that as soon as she had secured a new deal she would bring it back to Parliament for a new vote. But she added that, if a deal had not been agreed by Tuesday February 26, she would make another statement to Parliament on that day which would be debated and voted on by Parliament the next day, Wednesday February 27, in the form of an amendable motion, together with amendments from MPs. This scenario, of course, produced a distinct sense of déjà vu or of being caught in a constantly-recurring time-loop. The phrase “Groundhog Day” is becoming prevalent in the UK as a description of May’s tactics.
Jeremy Corbyn began his response with a jibe at the Transport Secretary, Chris Grayling. As part of the government’s plans for No Deal, it had awarded a £13.8 million contract to a ferry company called Seaborne Freight – a contract that the government recently cancelled when it became apparent that Seaborne Freight had no ships and had never run a ferry service. Corbyn began (to loud laughter from the House, even from some Conservative MPs):
“I usually thank the Prime Minister for an advance copy of her statement. But it was handed to me just as I was leaving my office to come down here. So I can only assume she entrusted it to the Transport Secretary to deliver it to me.”
He went on to accuse Theresa May of employing “one tactic: to run down the clock”, calling her “irresponsible” in “playing for time”. She was, he claimed, “playing with people’s jobs, our economic security and the future of our industries”. Drawing attention to a recent row over Nissan pulling investment from its plant in Sunderland, he accused her of “playing chicken with people’s livelihoods”. He pointed out that, even if she manages to secure changes to the backstop, they cannot be legally-binding; the EU, in its offer of further talks, has made it clear that any possible changes can only be made to the non-legally-binding Political Declaration on a future relationship; the EU will not reopen the legally-binding Withdrawal Agreement. He insisted that the only way to stop the UK from falling into the backstop was to adopt his plan of a permanent customs union and a strong Single Market deal. And he tore into May’s claim that her government has a strong record on workers’ rights and environmental protections, pointing, for example, to the Trades Union Act, which, he said, attacked Trades Union rights. For many Conservative MPs, he asserted “ripping up rights is what Brexit is all about” – ie getting rid of standards imposed by the EU. He quoted an article by the Secretary of State for International Trade: “It is intellectually unsustainable to believe that workplace rights should remain untouchable”. Corbyn also pointed out that the Leader of the House, Andrea Leadsom, has said that the final “meaningful vote” on the Brexit deal could take place only a week before March 29 – thus forcing Parliament to choose May’s deal rather than crash out with No Deal. He concluded by calling on Theresa May to rule out No Deal and back Labour’s alternative plan.
In her reply, May made a dig at the Labour Party’s internal debates over immigration policy by pretending that Corbyn wants the UK to remain in the Single Market (whereas his plan includes a strong relationship with the Single Market rather than staying in it). This, she pointed out, would mean accepting freedom of movement (she also seems to be trying to play on divisions within the Labour Party in the hope that some Labour MPs will vote for her deal). She claimed that her deal was backed by UK businesses. In reply to the accusation that she was creating uncertainty by “playing for time”, she replied with a variant on her programmed phrase: “The best way to end uncertainty is to vote for a deal”. She denied that she was running down the clock, putting the blame on MPs for not accepting her deal immediately: “I wanted this to be over before Christmas”. (She was interrupted at this point by loud jeers). As was pointed out later in questions, she completely ignored the fact that she had postponed the vote on the deal when it became apparent she was facing a catastrophic defeat. She concluded with another form of her programmed phrase: ”Every time someone votes against a deal, the risk of No Deal increases”.
The motion and amendments are being voted on tomorrow, Valentine’s Day. The next Brexit Update will discuss the results and consider what might happen next.
To watch May’s statement, Corbyn’s response, her reply and subsequent questions from MPs, here is the link (May’s statement starts at approx. 34’):