Boris Johnson emerged from last night’s meeting of Conservative MPs with a broad smile. Then came the news that Theresa May had promised to stand down if they agreed to vote for her Brexit deal – and that Johnson and other hardline Tory Brexiteers were now prepared to back it.
Naked self-interest? Only Johnson knows his own motives, but many will suspect his desire to become Prime Minister has clouded any sense of acting in the national interest.
Brexit started with a referendum designed to finally put an end to the decades-old Conservative infighting over the EU by finishing off the eurosceptics, only to see them triumph. And now it seems internal party politics, ambition and childish personal disputes are still major factors in determining the fate of the UK.
The Tories have been afforded the luxury of such debates because Labour’s own splits – and Jeremy Corbyn’s paper-thin pretence that he is not a Brexiteer – mean the Opposition is too weak to exploit what could have been a real political opportunity.
After May’s promise to quit, there was a sudden upwelling of support from her own MPs and if the UK leaves the EU under the terms of her Withdrawal Agreement, if it turns out to be not as bad as some suggest, and if Britain avoids a slide into a recession after putting a barrier between it and the world’s richest single market, then history may judge her rather more kindly than we do at present.
She may come to be seen as the Prime Minister who tried, tried, then tried again and fell on her sword for the good of her country. Who knows, perhaps after a few years of Johnson and then Michael Gove in Number 10, the country may cry out for her return.
But those are some pretty big ifs.
May’s deal may still not command a majority in the Commons. And, while not the catastrophe of a no-deal Brexit, it is still expected to have a serious negative impact on the economy.
The UK will also have to go cap-in-hand to Donald Trump’s America to ask for a trade deal we will need much more than the US does.
The cons of leaving the EU seem obvious and numerous, the pros are thin on the ground.
Testing to see whether the three-year-old ‘will of the people’ is still up to date in a second referendum would be a sensible and democratic way to establish whether the British people, collectively, are anything like as happy about all this as Johnson appeared to be last night.