Politics 2 January 2019 | 12:51

BREXIT COUNTDOWN #1: ‘What fresh hell can this be?’

02 January 2019 12:51

Dorothy Parker’s famous greeting whenever she answered the doorbell – sometimes reduced to ‘What fresh hell is this?’ – seems the only fair way to resume coverage of the final weeks until Brexit. Rude, I know, to do so this early in the New Year, but there are only 86 days left until Britain’s official departure date.

So what level of Hades have we reached? Theresa May devoted much of her New Year message to a plea for 2019 to be ‘the year we put our differences aside and move forward together’. Well, good luck with that, Prime Minister.

The week after next, the Commons will finally vote on her 585-page deal with Brussels. ‘If parliament backs a deal,’ she said, ‘Britain can turn a corner.’ Perhaps. But that moment of navigational epiphany is still some way off.

Government sources claim a growing level of confidence that, as the countdown clock ticks on, Tory MPs will come on board, if only to avoid a ‘no deal’ disaster, or a general election. One Cabinet Minister said to me recently that the 10 Democratic Unionist MPs are warming to the deal: ‘They’re not there yet, but they’re climbing the ladder.’

Maybe so, but it is always worth remembering that Ulster’s sectarian parties are masters of deal-breaking and strategising. As presently configured, the ‘backstop’ arrangement to prevent a hard Irish border is completely unacceptable to the DUP. So May needs the EU to deliver a clinching concession between now and the week of January 14 if she is to avoid a humiliating defeat that would threaten her very premiership.

In all this, the position of Jeremy Corbyn is the most intriguing. In his insistence that Brexit would go ahead even if Labour won a snap election, he is completely at odds with his own members – 72 per cent of whom a second referendum, according to new research by Prof Tim Bale of Queen Mary University London.

What is intriguing is that polls do not suggest, as one might perhaps expect, a sharp turning away from Corbyn by Remain voters – not yet, anyway. I agree with Stephen Bush’s analysis in The Times this week that those who support continued membership of the EU tend to be driven by a social liberalism that makes it hard for them to renounce Labour. Intellectually inconsistent it may be for so many Remainers to back a prospective PM who is so obviously keen on Brexit; but politics, as we learned in 2016, is as often governed by emotional imperatives than the weight of evidence.

In other words: do not expect Corbyn to abandon his completely muddled position on Brexit any time soon. As one senior Tory puts is to me ruefully: ‘It makes no sense, it’s completely irresponsible – and it’s working like a dream.’

More – I’m afraid – as we have it.