The only way to get Brexit Deal votes is to go softer
It’s lonely at the top. It’s probably lonelier if you cut yourself off and isolate yourself from your colleagues, even if they are after their own interests and your own job. This last week has proven just how politically lonely Theresa May is, yet still she carries on. There’s something admirable in that and perhaps it’s no small part of the explanation for the rise in rise in the level of sympathy the public feel for the PM, as noted in the previous thread, and also in her rising ‘Best PM’ lead (the two times YouGov have asked that this year, the leads – 18 and 16 per cent, respectively – have been the biggest since the 2017 election).
However, despite having tried to keep her Brexit strategy very close to home, the disastrous defeat of her Brexit plan means that if she’s to avoid a No Deal outcome, she can’t just carry on as if nothing has changed. Nominally, she’s recognized that by arranging meetings with opposition MPs and party leaders (though not Corbyn, who’s launched his own No Platform protest against the PM), but in practice, unless she’s willing to change any of the fundamentals, it’s hard to see what benefit that can bring her.
Had she been a more people-person sort of leader, she’d have been cultivating these links since the election, when it became obvious that they’d be useful (or at the very least, she’d have authorized senior members of the government to do so). Unfortunately, that’s not her style or character. Nor, as Ken Clarke noted, is transactional politics or flexibility.
That said, when circumstances have demanded it, she has made concessions or changed course – and circumstances most certainly do demand that now. For all that the scale of the defeat of her plan was record-breaking, it wasn’t the most important aspect of the result. What the numbers revealed was that there aren’t the numbers in the Commons for a harder Brexit.
Of all the MPs who voted against, it’s only within the Conservative ranks that those who want a cleaner break with the EU are to be found. To that might be added the DUP, for whom the NI-GB relationship is more important that the UK-EU one and who might support a No Deal outcome (but would only support a No Deal outcome as a harder Brexit from where we are, because any other deal would require a stronger N Ireland backstop; they might just as easily go for a softer Brexit if that reduces the need for any Irish Sea divisions). Beyond that, the Labour, Lib Dem, SNP and others are uniformly for some form of closer relationship.
If the PM is serious about getting a deal then, she’s going to have to offer something substantial. This immediately creates two problems. Firstly, the reaction among a large number of her own MPs is going to range from anger to rage to apoplexy. Having suffered more than a hundred of them voting against her, to then move the deal further away is not exactly conciliatory. On the other hand, they’ve hardly earned the right to be given a veto, having tried and failed to remove her and having voted down the best chance of an orderly withdrawal. With May now safe for a year from a leadership challenge triggered by a minority of Con MPs, she doesn’t need to act as the captive of the ERG.
The other problem is that the EU said they wouldn’t renegotiate. However, when they said that, they effectively meant that there wouldn’t be any more concessions from Brussels. If May were instead to go back and say “we’d like in on the Customs Union”, I suspect the door would be open. The EU doesn’t want No Deal either and the UK within the Customs Union permanently would solve some (but not all) of the N Ireland questions. Having conceded the principle of the issue for the transition period, it’s a small step to make the arrangement permanent.
Labour has of course demanded more than just Customs Union. They also want permanent alignment on a rule-taking basis on employment and environmental regulations too. These would, I think, be a step too far for Tory MPs. It’s one thing to give up trade rights which have proven illusory so far, it’s another to see large parts of what could easily otherwise be domestic legislation be dictated from Brussels. It shouldn’t be forgotten that it was precisely this point that kicked off the whole Eurosceptic movement within the Tories, in Delors’ Social Europe and Thatcher’s response to it in the Bruges Speech.
However, might Labour prove more flexible there than is being assumed? Probably not but it’s not impossible. There’s a reason that Corbyn has always been sceptical towards Europe, which is his suspicion that it’s a Capitalist Club. He may be right. There’s no guarantee that the flow of social legislation from Brussels will continue to be progressive. Might the rise of the New Right eclipse the consensus of the Centre Left on the continent and revise the Brussels policy? It’s certainly possible. Would Corbyn, as a potential PM, then be bound by treaty to repeal employment rights in order to keep the mirror with the EU and not impose artificial barriers? It’s not a happy prospect. Better to leave them off the table altogether? Perhaps.
Besides, how viable would it be to continue to refuse to engage with the government if they made a serious offer? The risk to Corbyn is twofold: firstly, that May got her deal through by splitting Labour as badly as her own party, and secondly, that if she didn’t get it through, Labour’s intransigence makes it complicit in the No Deal failure (which its own supporters will be much more upset about).
On the other hand, offering Customs Union membership would provoke further resignations from the government, including the cabinet. May could lose her third Brexit Secretary in barely six months, plus the likes of Chris Grayling (so it’s not all downside). The cries of ‘betrayal’ would be inevitable, and would be reinforced by the Article 50 extension that would have to be requested if a revised deal could be agreed.
The question – the gamble – is could the stars align sufficiently to find a majority that could back such a plan in the Commons, that could enable to the EU to sign up to it, and that could not prompt an outright mutiny among Tory MPs? The answer is that I don’t know. On balance, my guess would be not, though not by much. But given where the numbers are, it’s the only solution that seems capable of preventing No Deal.