Polly Toynbee: merciless on May and Brexit

19 Oct
Theresa May in Brussels for the EU summit
Theresa May in Brussels for the EU summit: ‘tea, sympathy and counselling’. Photograph: Geert Vanden Wijngaert/AP

Another Brussels dinner tonight, another impasse. Yet Theresa May will face 27 people more enviably united round the dinner table than any group of 27 people she could assemble from within her own cabinet or party.

So mad is the Tory box of frogs that she has had to withdraw the EU withdrawal bill for the second time, with its hundreds of amendments. This bill Dominic Grieve calls “an astonishing monstrosity” is paralysed by its writhing contradictions, destined to lose vote after vote with 12 Tories already signed up to rebel.

Her party’s no-dealers are daily ramping up the rhetoric; Owen Paterson told her this morning: “Walk away!” The sheer philosophical impossibility of their position makes your head ache. Which is the wrong box, the one marked “bad deal” or the one marked “no deal”? The bad deal, by definition, sounds worse.

But when Alice looks inside the no deal box she finds World Trade Organisation rules imposing 45% tariffs on her cheese, 37% on meat, 10% on clothing and footwear, and 10% on cars – while inflation caused by the Brexit plunge in the pound already runs at 3%, with earnings squeezed to less that they were in 2006.

Yet still the bullfrogs bellowing “No deal!” grow louder and madder by the day, clueless on the phantom “frictionless” Northern Ireland border, or how to stop 10,000 lorries parked all the way up the M2 from Dover.

May brings to the dinner a crumpled letter addressed to the 3.2 million EU citizens living among us, but it looks as if it got stuck in last year’s Christmas post. Far too late, far too little, it doesn’t allow a French scientist to bring in a new French partner, or a Polish doctor to bring in her husband.

No wonder the NHS is paying the price, with a 96% drop in EU nurses willing to come here. These were our poker chips and hostages. Goodbye fruit pickers, construction workers, restaurant staff, financiers, entrepreneurs, scientists, medics, teachers: far too late now for this letter to trumpet a message of welcome that should have resounded the day after the Brexit vote.

They will talk of “transition” tonight, after she has left the room. Remainers cling to a long “transition” in the hope something will turn up. But listen to business begging for more time and they only want the extra time to move companies across the Channel. Transition is just a longer plank, but we still walk off it in the end.

As her Boris bananas brigade ups its daily rhetoric, observers note an embarrassing change of tone towards Theresa May in Brussels. What’s that sound? Good grief, it’s pity! Brexiteer battlers want the UK at war, not the humiliation of tea, sympathy and counselling.

Hopelessly inept at every turn – viz her impossible immigration target – she is tin-eared to all tact and finesse, but the embarrassing truth is that she is our country’s best hope. She may be overthrown by Christmas, some observers warn, but the Tories will never call an election, letting Labour grown-ups take over negotiations.

The EU knows it; we know it; the polls show it – the Tories would choose someone worse. I can remember no worse time in politics, left praying that this dumbly clumsy woman clings on, just to hold off her no-deal headbangers.

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