She can’t please all the (necessary) people all the time
Not only is Theresa May a bloody difficult woman, she’s also a bloody difficult woman to shift. The ERG, with all their customary Keystone Cops planning, proved once again this week that when it comes to continuing her mission, the PM has a Terminator-like resilience to her and that it takes rather more than saying nasty things in posh voices to blow her off course.
Their failure, however, was not May’s success. The vote came about in the first place not just because of the pulled Meaningful Vote in the Commons on the Brexit Withdrawal Arrangement, but also because having declared to parliament that she understood its objections to the Deal, she then went off to Brussels defending what she’d previously agreed, including the necessity of the backstop. That was never going to generate confidence among critics on her benches.
Even so, she won. Not a convincing win – 117 MPs voting against her is a sizable block – but enough for the time being. But if that has removed one uncertainty (which it hasn’t quite – see below), the main one remains: the EU will not re-open the deal and parliament will not ratify it.
This presents a major problem for both the PM and Britain. It also poses a major problem for European and Ireland in particular. The lack of worry seems to be down to a misplaced assumption that a herd of unicorns will rescue the situation and prompt the government to reverse, or at least defer, Brexit one way or another.
The evidence suggests otherwise. May was always predictable: she would seek a revised deal, with the aim of having it ratified by the Commons in mid- to late-January. Any sooner would be impossible to get anything meaningful; any later would run into serious timetabling problems with both UK and EU law and processes.
Likewise, the EU was always predictable: it would offer clarifications while refusing to re-open the text, unless there was a major shift in UK politics – and no such shift has occurred. May was therefore always going to be unable to satisfy the critics on her own benches because non-binding interpretations cannot override the hard copy of the Agreement; hence, their fears could not be assuaged that way. Cue: seven weeks of tail-chasing.
Where does that leave us? In one sense, we’ll be no further forward. The same arguments will apply, the parliamentary maths will be the same and the red lines will be what they were (or are).
What will have changed is time. By late January, it will be extremely tight for Labour to be able to force a general election in time for 29 March. If the government was No Confidenced following the Brexit vote, the law requires at least seven weeks before polling day. That implies a polling day of 14 or 21 March. It also implies Labour having to go into what really would be a Brexit election with a meaningful policy, which at present doesn’t really exist. They could argue for another referendum but to what end: what would Labour support in that referendum? They could argue for striking their own Six Tests deal but surely Starmer must be aware that those tests are designed to fail the Tory policy, not to pass a Labour one. In truth, the Labour leadership has little incentive to generate an election before Brexit is settled – which is presumably one reason why it hasn’t tried so far.
But if the Labour leadership is willing to pay the price of Brexit in order to facilitate a Labour government, not all its MPs will be. That is Theresa May’s chance to salvage her deal.
By late-January, the prospect of a No Deal exit will loom large. The loose talk of referendums will have receded among those aware of the logistical difficulties in delivering one within the space of weeks. The choice will be hardening towards her deal or no deal. We know that the parliamentary Tory Party is deeply split but that might be the moment when Labour’s divisions reach a similar level; when enough Labour MPs decide that any deal is better than nothing and row in behind the PM. After all, to vote against it is not a risk-free option; it could easily mean to be complicit in delivering the chaos.
In truth, the only way in which May can deliver any deal is with the support of substantial numbers of opposition MPs, which almost certainly means Labour ones. This would, of course, neatly mirror the picture when Britain joined the EEC. It would also, for Tories, raise uncomfortable institutional memories of the Corn Laws split.
This is where the pivot truly lies. If May loses that vote, then Britain is set for a No Deal Brexit. There will no doubt be calls for an A50 extension or revocation; for referendums or general elections; for further talks and for different models. They’d all come to nothing. With the Commons unable to agree and the EU unwilling to change the offer, talks couldn’t succeed and may not even happen. Nor would a general election be attractive to any of the parties, as explained above (and would surely be viewed as a distraction by the public). And while a referendum might offer some superficial attractions, it would be difficult to legislate for (what questions and in which order?), it would come with the major risk of endorsing a No Deal, could of itself alienate a large part of the electorate, and would be unlikely to generate any better debate than the 2016 vote. No, if the January vote goes down, No Deal becomes highly likely.
On the other hand, if the deal is endorsed, against dozens of Tory and DUP votes but with an even higher number of Labour ones, May’s own position becomes doubly insecure. First, she may lose her leadership. Ignore the fact that the Tory leadership rules say that she is safe for 12 months. That rule is part of that section owned by the 1922 Committee and can be amended easily and as required – as Graham Brady proved when he confirmed changes to the timetable that would have followed had May lost the vote this week. All the 12-month rule does is make opponents jump through two hoops rather than one. But in the event that there was intense and widespread anger against her, it would be little help as a fireguard.
The even bigger risk however would be the DUP. If the deal as it stands, with the backstop, is endorsed then May loses the DUP’s support permanently. That means an inevitable general election at a time of Labour’s choosing but probably in the Spring.
May is like a chess player left with only king and queen, while her opponent(s) hold multiple pieces and pawns. She can manoeuvre and defend and fight off attacks for a while – indeed, if her opponents make an error, she might even make a brief gain – but sooner or later, weight of numbers will leave her nowhere to go.