Tom Richmond: Theresa May must forge new style of dialogue to break Brexit impasse – and survive

Theresa May, pictured addressing MPs during the latest Commons exchanges on Brexit.
Theresa May, pictured addressing MPs during the latest Commons exchanges on Brexit.
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THERESA May would have been in esteemed company if she had lost Labour’s vote of no confidence 24 hours after her Brexit deal suffered a humiliating defeat that was without precedent in modern politics.

From Sir Robert Walpole in 1749 to James Callaghan, past premiers of the stature of Lord North, Benjamin Disraeli, William Gladstone, Stanley Baldwin and Ramsay MacDonald have been brought down by this means.

Yet, while all political careers, it is said, end in failure, Mrs May draws perverse strength from every setback and soldiers on as a prisoner of history.

Mrs May is helped by Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn possessing no coherent Brexit plan of his own, a shortcoming that saw his attempt to bring down the most shambolic and dysfunctional government in living memory fail by 325 to 306 votes.

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The Prime Minister also survives – for now – because the most uncompromising Brexiteers have overplayed their hand to such an extent that Britain may not leave the European Union.

And she’s assisted by a lack of coherence on the part of Remain supporters as the Lib Dems, the one pro-EU and pro-referendum party, fail to exploit calls for a People’s Vote.

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Yet there is little hope when one also reprises how the quality of political debate has deteriorated since the 1975 referendum – and the vote of no confidence in the Callaghan government after Margaret Thatcher’s first attempt failed.

This was a time when politicians of stature made serious and principled speeches that cut across the political divide. Take Mrs Thatcher, who said: “Go anywhere in the country, and one finds that the demand is for two things – less tax and more law and order. The phrase ‘law and order’ does not refer only to vandalism and violence – although that is uppermost in many people’s minds. It means that our citizens expect and are not getting an ordered or orderly society. They expect the rubbish to be cleared, the schools to be open and the hospitals to be functioning. They are not.”

Or Mr Callaghan’s response? “Let need, not greed, be our motto. Our purpose as a Government and as a party is to present a bold, Socialist challenge to all these problems as we face these tasks,” he told MPs before losing the fateful division by one vote.

Compare and contrast this oratory from 40 years ago to the Prime Minister and Opposition leader. Despite this week’s high theatre, neither had anything new to say because they lack the spontaneity, originality and dexterity required to broaden their support base on Brexit – or any other issue.

In a game of brinkmanship to see who can survive for the longest, both main parties find themselves shouting across a void when the national interest demands the precise opposite. And, yes, there are senior Parliamentarians from Yorkshire waiting to be be consulted by Mrs May as Westminster now becomes distracted by the row over whether Mr Corbyn should be involved, or not, in this process when his sole objective is to bring down the Government.

“The Prime Minister needs to reach out across the Commons in a genuine spirit of co-operation and compromise,” a centrist Labour MP told me. “A series of indicative votes might be helpful in determining options around which Parliament could coalesce...it is incumbent on all Parliamentarians to roll up their sleeves, put narrow party interests aside and act in the national interest.”

The problem is achieving this – and then securing the support of at least 326 MPs – when members of Mrs May’s party appear to be as obstinate and obdurate as ever after Tuesday’s vote. Take these examples. The hypocrisy of Morley MP Andrea Jenkyns who demands Mrs May’s resignation while backing the Government in the confidence vote. The scheming of Dominic Grieve, the former Attorney General, who won’t stop until there is a second referendum. Or the blustering of Boris Johnson, the ex-Foreign Secretary, who believes the EU will capitulate. With friends, to coin a phrase, like this, who needs enemies?

I could go on. And while just as many Labour MPs are showing little rational thinking, Theresa May will only be able to reach out across the political divide when she has decided whether to put her party or country first.

Her conundrum is this. Back her arch-Eurosceptics over a no-deal Brexit, or ditch her ‘red lines’ on membership of the single market and customs union in order to appease sufficient Remainers on Labour’s benches and, in doing so, risk irreversible splits in the Tory party.

As such, the respite from actually surviving last night’s no confidence vote will be temporary unless the Prime Minister can forge a new style of political dialogue, debate and decision-making two and a half years after she should have reached out to rival parties, business leaders and senior statesmen in order to avoid the fate endured by past premiers and to prolong her rule for now.

tom.richmond@jpimedia.co.uk