The contrast between what she said and the way she said it was stark. In a subdued, almost reticent way, Theresa May told the nation on the steps of 10 Downing Street on November 14 that she “believed with her head and her heart” in the draft withdrawal agreement she had negotiated with the EU. The cabinet also backed it, she told us.
As subsequent cabinet resignations have proven, there was no such agreement. The whole address looks increasingly like it could be the first part of a long and drawn out resignation letter.
It was also the culmination of May’s ultimate folly: the crumbling of her absurd red lines. These red lines – leaving the customs union and the single market, ending the jurisdiction of the ECJ – were never compatible with not having a border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, nor with a smooth transition in general. More painfully, these red lines were almost totally unnecessary. These issues were not on the 2016 referendum ballot. History will be a harsh judge as to why May and her team – stand up, Nick Timothy – chose to go down this path.
It has been clear for a long time that there is little appetite for these red lines especially in light of the potential impacts (a border in Ireland and disruption to trade to name two). But the root of the problem is this: from the moment she became PM, May played to a particular gallery: the Hard Brexiteers within her own party. It was to these people, first and foremost, who May spoke. Despite appeals to the hallowed “will of the people”, it was the will of the Brexiteers that May appealed to from late 2016 onwards.
But now that approach has crumbled on contact with the reality of UK and EU politics. Not only does this deal achieve the remarkable feat of being both the product of her red lines and an immediate transgression of them, May’s appearance before parliament the day after the Withdrawal Agreement was published showed one thing clearly: her deal has not only divided her cabinet but has no support in the Commons.