The Guardian view on May and the Tories: choosing unity over reality | Editorial

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Brexit has tested many loyalties in parliament but broken few. The line that divides pro-Europeans and Brexiters cannot be neatly drawn between opposition and governing benches. MPs on both sides have been frustrated by their leaders and defied their whips. But, overall, party bonds have proved remarkably resilient.

The slender majority that Theresa May won on Tuesday night, endorsing a theoretical variant of her Brexit deal (minus the Northern Irish backstop), was a case in point. Mrs May had some Labour votes on loan and was as reliant as ever on the DUP, but the determining factor was a Conservative craving to feel whole again after months of civil strife. Many Tory MPs know that the proposition they endorsed was a fiction. The prime minister herself conceded that there was little appetite in the EU to adjust the backstop. Ministers are unable to describe the “alternative arrangements” that are supposed to prevent any return to a hard Irish border. But those technical problems were set aside for the gratification of appearing unified at last.

That pretence does not come without cost. There are 27 EU member states whose different interests have been painstakingly funnelled into one withdrawal agreement with the UK. For Mrs May to change her mind about it now, two months before departure day, is not just reckless, it is obnoxious. Governments around the world are watching for signs of what kind of actor “Brexit Britain” will be on the international stage. Previously Mrs May looked obtuse. Now she looks unreliable.

The prime minister has often faced a choice between confronting an intransigent strain of Tory anti-Brussels prejudice and indulging it. Each time she has flattered the fanatics. In Brussels, Berlin and Paris it is apparent that the rightwing fringe of the Conservative party harbours nationalistic hostility to the European project, and that some Tory MPs see a purgative value in the chaos that would follow a disorderly collapse of the Brexit process. That wrecking impulse is present within the majority that swung behind Mrs May in the Commons on Tuesday. The Eurosceptic ultras do not expect satisfaction from a renegotiated deal. On the contrary, they make demands in order to mine grievance from the inevitable rejection. They backed the prime minister in preparation for the blame game that will doubtless begin when Brexit fails to deliver its advertised bounties.

Mrs May’s tolerance of that faction costs her credibility and goodwill with European partners who also watched David Cameron being manipulated by the same Tory backbenchers with the same incapacity for compromise. Even if the EU27 want to help the prime minister, they know their concessions would simply provoke more demands. There is no interest for the EU side in pandering to the implacables. Mrs May has done so partly because she lacks a Commons majority but that is not a sufficient explanation. For her not once to have challenged the hardliners after all this time suggests a cultural affinity that goes beyond calculation and cowardice. It indicates a sense of belonging – an irrational loyalty that supersedes the call of serious statecraft.

Most politicians imagine themselves capable of putting country before party in moments of emergency. That patriotic ambition has rarely been tested as thoroughly or as visibly as it is now with a prime minister who buys transient, worthless moments of Tory unity at a heavy price in national credibility. It is a shameful transaction and one for which Mrs May and the Conservatives will one day be held to account.

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