Ian Swanson: May’s appeal to the public not quite bob’s your uncle

Theresa May looks unlikely to win the backing of MPs for her Brexit deal. Picture: AFP/Getty
Theresa May looks unlikely to win the backing of MPs for her Brexit deal. Picture: AFP/Getty
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FOREIGN Secretary Jeremy Hunt says Britain has ­become a nation of Bobs – people who are Bored Of Brexit. So news that the long-awaited withdrawal agreement was finally endorsed by EU leaders at their summit on Sunday might sounds like a ­welcome relief.

But Bobs across the country should prepare for disappointment. The deal may be done, but Brexit is not going away.

The next step is for Theresa May to persuade MPs to approve Sunday’s deal – and all the signs are she will fail. All the opposition parties, her supposed allies in the DUP and a big chunk of her own party are set to vote against it.

Mrs May is currently on a charm offensive, trying to appeal above the heads of the politicians to the ­public, perhaps aiming to reach all those Bobs in the hope that the prospect of more interminable wrangling will ­galvanise them to put pressure on their MPs just to get the whole thing settled by agreeing to her deal. But if, as looks most likely, the deal is rejected by the Commons what ­happens next? No deal seems the most obvious answer.

The EU leaders have insisted the UK will not get a better deal if they vote down the one they are presented with.

Some say Mrs May might feel obliged to resign, but her dogged determination in the face of previous setbacks – not least the loss of her majority in last year’s general election – suggest she is more likely to carry on regardless.

Labour wants a general election, but although the Fixed Term Parliament Act did not prove a problem when Mrs May called last year’s snap election, that was because all parties backed the move. This time there would almost certainly be more opposition to the idea.

Could defeat of the Brexit deal force Mrs May into calling a second ­referendum, the so-called People’s Vote which campaigners are lobbying for? She has been unequivocal in ruling out such an exercise so far and it is not clear there would be majority support in parliament for it. A new referendum may also produce the same result as the first one, but cause even more disillusionment and alienation among Brexit supporters into the bargain.

Some commentators see a scenario where the stark prospect of a no-deal Brexit prompts panic in the markets and a Christmas financial crisis which leads MPs to rethink their position and back Mrs May in a second vote.

Perhaps, if there was some show of trying to improve the existing deal and a few tweaks or clarifications were added, it could save some face.

But no one outside Mrs May’s circle of supporters would be happy. Brexiteers and Remainers alike would still believe the deal was inadequate. And even Bobs would still be disappointed – because a withdrawal deal is not the end of Brexit, more like “the end of the beginning”.

Part of the deal the EU leaders endorsed on Sunday was the political declaration setting out the framework for the future relationship between the EU and the UK. While the withdrawal agreement ran to almost 600 pages, the political statement was just 26 – so there is plenty of negotiating to be done to flesh out the details on trade, fishing, security, customs and much more.

Brexit will dominate the headlines for a long time yet – Bobs beware.

ian.swanson@edinburghnews.com