Bill Carmichael: Theresa May should still not be underestimated over Brexit after latest breakthrough

Theresa May at a parent and toddler group before updating MPs on Brexit.
Theresa May at a parent and toddler group before updating MPs on Brexit.
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IS this finally the Brexit breakthrough we’ve all been waiting for?

Perhaps not quite yet – expect a few more nail-biters over the weekend. To paraphrase the old Stingray TV puppet show (yes, I know I am showing my age) – anything can happen in the next 72 hours.

Yesterday Theresa May told the House of Commons that the UK and EU had agreed in principle a “political declaration” governing future trade and security issues to add to the draft exit deal already agreed.

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The Prime Minister claimed that this was the Brexit people voted for, adding: “That deal is within our grasp and I am determined to deliver it.”

Attention now moves to Saturday, when May returns to Brussels for yet another “crunch meeting” with European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, followed on Sunday with an EU summit.

Expect another nail-biting session as the clock ticks down to the 59th second of the 59th minute of the 11th hour before a deal is announced – or perhaps there will be a further postponement of the deadline until yet another “crunch meeting” a few days hence.

Meanwhile, we are told there is mutiny afoot in the EU camp from several countries that complain the proposed deal gives away too much in Britain’s favour.

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Spain is rattling sabres over Gibraltar and how unfair it is to have a British enclave on the southern tip of their country. They like to shout about the evils of imperialism, but then suddenly go very quiet at the mention of Melilla and Ceuta, Spain’s colonial outposts on the coast of Morocco.

France, Denmark and the Netherlands are also demanding more access to British fishing grounds in return for a free trade deal.

We are informed they are all threatening to vote down the deal unless they get more concessions from the UK. I take all of this with a bucket full of salt – these European countries are obedient lackeys of the EU empire and they will vote for a deal if that is what Berlin and Brussels tell them to do.

So what exactly is going on here? Perhaps I am being overly cynical but I do wonder if this very carefully choreographed pas de deux is more for public consumption than it is about hard political negotiation.

According to the current Commons arithmetic, Mrs May is unlikely to get her deal through Parliament, even if it is agreed by the EU. The opposition parties have pledged to vote against and, along with Conservative rebels and the DUP, this should ensure the Prime Minister’s defeat.

Perhaps the calculation is this – that if Mrs May can show through these “last minute” dashes to Brussels and late night meetings that she has strained every sinew to get the best deal for the UK, then perhaps it may persuade some wavering MPs to support her in the crucial Commons votes.

And if she can also demonstrate she has fought off a determined French grab for our fishing grounds and tamed Spanish ambitions over Gibraltar, well, all the better.

In other words, are these last gasp summits more about the “optics” than the substance of a deal that has largely been agreed some time ago?

I have grave doubts about the deal – particularly over the status of Northern Ireland and the fact the EU could lock 
us into a customs union permanently, and we couldn’t escape without their say so.

But the more I see of Mrs May the more I reckon it would be a serious error to underestimate her.

She has remained determined and steadfast in the face of vicious political attacks from across the political spectrum – including, it has to be said, some vile misogynistic abuse.

At the moment the odds are very 
much stacked against success, but if 
she manages to come through all of 
this with her agreement intact it would be a quite remarkable political achievement, whether you agree with the deal or not.