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How the UK press reacted to May's historic defeat

16 Jan 2019  |  Raymond Snoddy 
How the UK press reacted to May's historic defeat

Newsbrands will have to limber up for more flip-flops on their editorial lines, writes Raymond Snoddy as he surveys the media landscape during the chaos of Brexit

If you want to understand the political origins of the current mess we are in, then the go-to person may be the American legal scholar with an interest in constitutional law, Cass Sunstein.

In his 2009 book, Going to Extremes, Sunstein brings together several decades of research from many aspects of public life from the behaviour of judges to that of burglars. It demonstrates that when groups of like-minded people gather there is an almost inevitable tendency for group opinions to polarise over time and head towards extremes.

We are indebted for the elevation of the ideas of Sunstein and their relevance to the current Brexit debate to Daniel Finkelstein in The Times.

Finkelstein applies Sunstein to the supporters of Brexit in the House of Commons and notes that people who were once quite pragmatic about the shape of the UK’s relationship with the EU have become more and more doctrinaire.

Now only the hardest Brexit will do and “any alternative is a betrayal.”

As Sunstein predicts, they won’t even have noticed how they have shifted their position as they drift and drift until, without realising it, they have ended up “in the ridiculous position where the prime minister negotiates to leave the EU and they turn it down.”

Following the historic defeat for Theresa May’s agreement there are frothing headlines aplenty, most of them focusing on the scale of the Prime Minister’s record-breaking humiliation.

The Sun pulled out all the stops by portraying the Prime Minister as a dodo under the legend: Brextinct.

There was even a bit of leading from the leader columns, although they too are seriously split on what should happen next, with The Sun apparently coming out for a No Deal Brexit.

“The Sun reluctantly believes we must head for a clean break, finalise preparations as best we can and batten down the hatches,” the paper argues.

How different in tone from 2016 when the Sun was stridently leading its readers to the sunlit uplands where nothing would be more simple than leaving the EU and getting wonderful Fox-like trade deals with the rest of the world.

Batten down the hatches indeed.

In the long article, which takes up a whole page of the paper, there is no room to define what battening down the hatches will actually mean, or what the economic consequences of a No Deal Brexit would actually mean for its readers. No mention of the economic consensus that walking out without a deal would cause the most damage to the country and might even be completely disastrous.

The Daily Mail has skewered itself on unquestioning support for Mrs May. “As Tories Betray Theresa,” the Mail argues that her deal has been left with nowhere to go but is still supporting the Prime Minister.

Maybe the vote might provide a degree of catharsis. Maybe people should listen to the mellifluous Attorney General Geoffrey Cox when he argued this was not a playground, they were playing with lives.

“For the sake of the Conservative Party and the country, we must find a way out of the current impasse. If anyone can achieve that, she can,” the Mail believes.

That’s really telling them.

The Daily Telegraph goes for “A complete humiliation” and adds a batch of opinion pieces to rub salt in the wound.

Apart from that, confusion reigns. The Telegraph fulminates that “a well managed no deal” - whatever that is – should not have been almost entirely taken off the table. The Europeans must be persuaded that the Irish backstop should go. That isn’t going to happen because it goes to the heart of the matter.

And then the Daily Telegraph staggers its way to a pathetic conclusion.

The Government, it says, must regain the confidence of the House, rethink the agreement and go to the Europeans with a united front.

“Whether or not Mrs May leads that effort is a decision upon which she will now have to think very hard.”

Err, no she has already ruled out resignation.

The Times is more measured. After noting that the Prime Minister’s biggest failure had been her failure to be honest with the public, The Times speaks the obvious truth that there is no point going back to Brussels with further impossible demands to soften the backstop.

To avoid a No Deal Mrs May must be prepared to compromise and be open to a permanent customs union or ask voters to back the deal in another referendum making a delay beyond 29 March inevitable.

In a little bit of leading The Times concludes that: “if Mrs May is unwilling to do what is necessary to avoid chaos, then Parliament will have to find a leader who will.”

Yet Finkelstein, clutching his volume of Sunstein, provides a lot more leading than the leader columns by simply describing how his views have changed from being an enthusiastic Remain voter who nonetheless accepted and respected the outcome of the referendum. He also believed that a second vote was a very bad idea.

Patience with his intellectual determining has been hard to maintain in the face of the growing extremism and for Finkelstein that patience has finally been exhausted.

There is indeed betrayal in the air but it is the Remain voters who honoured the referendum result who have been betrayed by the Brexiteers, The Times columnist argues.

The Brexiteers never said during the referendum campaign that Brexit could mean leaving the EU without any trade deal, breaking the Good Friday agreement or failing to settle financially with our continental allies and departing without a transition agreement.

It was “nonsense, complete nonsense” to say that was what 17.4 million people voted for.

If the alternative is a No Deal Brexit then Finkelstein is prepared to swallow the difficulties of a second referendum.

“If Parliament can’t deliver Brexit it would have to go back to the people. But all I would say to the Brexiteers is that if parliament can’t deliver Brexit, it isn’t my fault. It’s yours."

Now that’s a leader with real thoughts, real knowledge and real arguments instead of the usual bromides and platitudes.

And perhaps if Finkelstein, a moderate Tory, can change his mind on a second referendum so can Mrs Theresa May.

Meanwhile, the papers will have to limber up for more flip-flops on their editorial lines as Jeremy Corbyn’s confidence vote fails, as they always will, exposing the impractical hopes for an early general election and the even more delusional re-negotiations with the EU.

Is there any good news in sight? Not much, but Jacob Rees-Mogg seems to have gone missing and have retreated to the Somerset Levels.

Could it be that the broadcasters have belatedly decided that Jacob Rees-Mogg has delighted us long enough?

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