The conviction that no deal is better than a bad deal, written into Theresa May’s Lancaster House speech of last year by Nick Timothy, has been a foundation stone of her Brexit policy. What condition is it in this morning, following yesterday’s events in the Commons?
The main purpose of Viscount Hailsham’s “meaningful vote” amendment, and that too of Dominic Grieve’s, was to put no deal beyond the Government’s reach. It can be argued that the former Attorney-General failed in his venture. His amendment sought, first, to ensure that the Government seeks the approval of the Commons, if no withdrawal agreement with the EU is reached by November 30, for whatever it seeks to do from that date; and, second, to follow any direction that the Commons gives it if no such agreement is reached by reached by February 15 next year. The latter element in particular is a kind of potential instruction, to be used perhaps to force a quest for renewed EEA membership; or to seek the postponement or even the abandonment of Brexit; or maybe to lock the UK into a kind of permanent transition without an end point.
Ministers didn’t accept the amendment, which Grieve offered in place of Hailsham’s. Instead, Robert Buckland told the Commons that the Government wants to use the first part of it as “the basis of a structured discussion as we reach the Lords amendments”. He was silent on the second part, though Grieve appears to have been given private guarantees about it. The latter took the Solicitor-General at his word, and most of his former Remainer allies followed him in abstaining. Ken Clarke and Anna Soubry went the whole hog, no pun intended, and voted for the Hailsham amendment outright. They clearly thought their colleague risked being shafted. Perhaps they were right. There is already a tangle over whether Grieve was given bankable guarantees at all. The Brexit Department has issued a bullish statement setting out three tests for any new Grieve-influenced amendments that come back in due course from the Lords.
But the real lesson of yesterday is precisely the other way round. In the morning, Ministers said they would resist Grieve’s amendment. In the afternoon, they caved in. Grieve and his band have already defeated the Government once in the Commons. Yesterday, they showed that they have the capacity to do so again, and force Ministers to climb down. If the amendments that duly return from the Lords are not to his satisfaction, and are in breach of promises he believes he has been given, then he will lead his fellow rebels into the Opposition lobbies. May has Julian Smith. But Grieve has the numbers. And who needs Phillip Lee? He resigned yesterday to vote against the Government. But it was Grieve who ended up stealing the limelight. Lee didn’t even vote against the administration he had quit in protest.
Perhaps whatever amendments are eventually passed will never be needed. Maybe the Prime Minister will have a deal in place and all agreed before the end of November. Perhaps, as one clever Brexiteer MP believes, “we have reached Peak Grieve”. That’s to say, the Beaconsfield MP can propose, but not dispose. He may be able to bend legislation to his will. But he will not, this Brexiteer claims, be able to impose new EEA membership or the postponement of Brexit or its abandonment on the Government. Once the Withdrawal Bill is passed, the legislative framework for Brexit will be in place. And the clock will be ticking. If no deal is agreed, a fractious and bewildered Commons will be unable to agree an alternative before March 29 (he says). Nor will it have the power to initiate the necessary legislation. Were May to seek to postpone Brexit, for example, she would fall. There is no consensus in the Commons for the EEA option, since it doesn’t offer a proper immigration policy. And so on. In these circumstances, Britain will slide out of the EU with no deal.
We are unconvinced. There may be no natural Commons majority for EEA, or for seeking to put back Article 50 – but there is certainly none for no deal. If MPs really are granted the power to direct Ministers, one can see how they could acquire the capacity to initiate laws. The long and short of it is that there is a latent majority in the Commons for a soft Brexit, and where there’s a will, there may be a way – if May’s would-be deal falls through, or if the House rejects it. In any event, it is likely that she would have to quit in the aftermath of either.
It is rare to meet a Conservative MP who believes that she can lead the Party into the next election. Most share the view of a majority of this site’s members’ panel, expressed in every monthly survey since the election, that she must be replaced before the next one is fought. Many assume that the natural time for her to depart will be next spring, when Brexit takes place, since it will mark a natural break-point in the political cycle. A new Tory leader would be in place for a new British venture.
After the events of the last month or so, those MPs should ask themselves some searching questions. Does the Government’s lack of a majority make its plight inevitable? Or would a new leader – a Prime Minister Gove or Hunt or Javid or Johnson, say – make a better fist of it? If so, isn’t that new sense of direction needed sooner, to give a sense of purpose to its Brexit plan, and entire political strategy?
There are no easy answers. On the one hand, few Conservative MPs want to risk anything that might end in a general election. Voters might well punish any party that inflicted one on them, or exposed its differences in a bloody leadership election. On the other, there is a growing sense that things can’t carry on as they are. The Cabinet Committee meeting at Chequers planned for July could be May’s last chance to get her approach to leaving the EU in proper shape. The Brexiteer frog is alive and croaking, if not kicking. But Grieve turned up the temperature on it yesterday, and there are few signs that it’s preparing to jump.