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Cheer up, it's the best UK can do

Cheer up, it's the best UK can do

May will get EU deal through Commons

by Meghnad Desai in London

Fri 23 Nov 2018

I am a realistic pessimist. Life is such that you do not always get the best option, no matter how hard you try. You have to choose between the second and the third best, or even the fourth best. That is Britain's position regarding withdrawal from the European Union, now going through the tortuous final stages of agreement.

I have thought for some time that Theresa May is safe from a leadership challenge through her rebellious but so far irresolute backbenchers. Just as the challenge to the prime minister in the 1922 Committee (the Conservative party's parliamentary group) has not happened – and I doubt it will happen – this deal will be approved by the House of Commons. The fear of 'no deal', as well as a dislike of 'no Brexit', are strong enough for there to be a small majority to approve the agreement.

I predict a temporary coalition of enough Conservative members of parliament, together with sufficient numbers from the Labour side who will probably follow not their leader's orders, but their leader's practice, and defy the Whip. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn – whom I know reasonably well after I got to know him during my tenure as an activist and later Labour party chair in Islington South, a neighbour to his North Islington constituency – has a habit of voting against the party leadership, and I believe his MPs today will follow in his footsteps.

The UK withdrawal deal, bad as it is, is the best that can be got. People are not foolish. They may not look very intelligent from a distance, but there have been detailed negotiations by talented civil servants. One must also pay tribute to May. She has managed all this time by feigning to be a weak, indecisive person, and she has lasted longer than any of her colleagues.

She pushed through the much-derided Chequers withdrawal plan in July and got rid of David Davis and then Boris Johnson, previously her ministers for EU withdrawal and foreign affairs.

Since then she has been shedding Cabinet ministers. It is only when they resign that you realise they were in the Cabinet in the first place, making them famous by default.

I think she has been clever. She has leveraged what men in the House of Commons think are women's weaknesses, and she has lasted eight years in the Cabinet – two as prime minister and six as home secretary.

May understands this is the best exit accord she could get. The fact there may be a transitional period until not 2020 but 2022 is, in the long run, trivial. It may not look ideal, but will be forgotten very soon, so I say, 'Cheer up.' This is what will be. There will be no 'no deal', there will be no 'no Brexit'. This is the best the country can do.

Lord (Meghnad) Desai, a Labour peer, is Emeritus Professor of Economics at the London School of Economics and Political Science, and Chair of the OMFIF Advisers Council. This is an edited version of his speech in the House of Lords on 20 November.  

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