News World UK in crisis as Theresa May finally stops faking it over Brexit
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UK in crisis as Theresa May finally stops faking it over Brexit

Theresa may brexit
Theresa May previously warned Britain may end up with no Brexit plan. Photo: Getty
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Theresa May is grappling with the biggest crisis in British government since the Suez Crisis of 1956, all because she has finally had to stop faking it over Brexit.

Twenty-eight months after she became Prime Minister by promising to enact the vote to leave the European Union, she has at last had to stop pretending she could somehow deliver on the impossible promises that the Brexiteers had used to win that referendum.

For all that time she has insisted that she would find a way to make good the promises of Brexiteers, like fellow Conservatives Michael Gove and Boris Johnson, that the UK could leave the EU and all its obligations, while retaining benefits, such as friction-less trade access to the largest free-trade zone in the world.

These are Brexiteers who claimed the UK would have continued free access to the customs union (Gove) when that could never happen, or that the UK would get a financial bonanza from leaving (Johnson) when every official assessment has shown that even the most gentle Brexit would damage the UK economy, jobs and public finances.

Ms May also stuck to the myth that Northern Ireland could be in a different customs and regulatory zone from the Irish Republic without the reintroduction of a hard border or the retention of some EU regulations in the North.

That strategy allowed Ms May to keep the show on the road until Thursday, just 91 working days before the scheduled departure date of March 29.

The Prime Minister has now had to drop the pretence by revealing the details of the departure deal that her team  actually negotiated with Brussels, a real-world bundle of awkward compromises rather than lofty illusions.

The response from Brexiteers has not been to admit that they gave her an impossible task, but to stomp off in a rage over her failure to make their fairy tales come true.

“I cannot reconcile the terms of the deal with the promises we made,” Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab said after resigning Thursday night, not for a second imagining that the problem was those promises rather than the inability to deliver them.

The resignation of Mr Raab, another pro-Brexit Cabinet Secretary and several other MPs came as pro-Brexit Tories tried to overthrow her leadership and Ms May endured a three-hour grilling in the House of Commons.

It is now clear the Prime Minister does not have the numbers in Parliament to endorse her deal, a prospect she said would mean “deep and grave uncertainty”.

Westminster has seen other leadership crises in recent decades, but this one comes when the EU departure mechanism has already been triggered for March 29 with no clear path to avoiding the disastrously “hard” no-deal Brexit.

Ms May insists that she will not delay the departure but she seems to have just three choices: stick with a deal that has almost no chance of being approved by Parliament and would therefore almost certainly lead to a no-deal Brexit, or put Brexit on hold and call either a general election or a new referendum which might see Brexit cancelled altogether.

The current Brexit deal would see the UK leave EU programs in areas such as science research, farming and fishing, but trade was her stumbling block.

While the Brexiteers have vowed it would be easy to sign great new deals with the EU and the rest of the world, China and India are not interested.

Donald Trump will do the UK no favours and even friends like Australia and NZ will drive their own hard bargains.

Ms May delighted in telling the House yesterday that Australia and Japan support the UK joining the latest iteration of the Trans Pacific-Partnership grouping, 9000 kms away.

The cruel reality is that even joining the TPP would never make up for the losses of leaving the EU.

Ireland, with a population of 4.8 million, buys more UK exports than the combined total of the six most populous TPP countries – Japan, Mexico, Vietnam, Canada, Peru and Malaysia, which together have 452.6 million people.

Ms May’s challenge on Ireland was how to “square the circle” of several conflicting promises she had made regarding the Northern Ireland border.

On the one hand she had vowed to keep the border fully open to people and goods to avoid undermining the Good Friday Agreement that ended the sectarian Troubles.

But she also said there would never be such a customs “border” between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK, and yet the UK and the EU would no longer be in the same customs area.

Brexiteers claimed they could do the required customs and regulations checks with some mysterious new system, perhaps involving the use of drones and cameras to monitor vehicles crossing the border. Experts were aghast at the suggestion that a drone could somehow tell what was in a truck that might contain 200 separate customs consignments.

When her proposal was published this week, it said the EU and Britain would continue trying to negotiate some way to solve the border problem, and if they had not solved it by the end of a transition period in December 2020 there would be a “backstop” for an indefinite period.

Under the backstop the whole of the UK would stay in the customs area with the EU, but Northern Ireland would come under some extra EU regulation, news that enraged the Northern Irish unionist MPs whose votes have propped up the May minority government.

An even more important point was that the deal said the backstop would continue until the UK managed to convince the EU that it had come up with a solution for the border problem.

If Brussels did not agree that the problem had been magically solved, then Britain would not be able to leave unilaterally, and an independent arbitration process would decide whether the UK had in fact managed to square the circle.

The UK could be locked into the backstop indefinitely, making it what Tory MP Julian Lewis called “a Hotel California Brexit deal which ensures that we can never truly leave the EU”.

To livid Brexiteers that means the worst of all worlds, forcing Britain to remain subject to EU trade rules, but no longer having a seat at the table in shaping those rules.

Ms May admitted that she “shared some of those concerns” about the backstop but the painful truth, she said, was that there was no other way to get the EU to agree to the departure deal.

The truth can indeed hurt, especially when it has been avoided for so long.

Award-winning Australian journalist Peter Wilson has been covering British and European politics and events from his London base for almost two decades