Time is running out. ConservativeHome is told that after mid-February it will be very hard indeed for Parliament to pass a Bill to effect a Brexit deal – even if both chambers sit through nights and weekends. The task will become impossible if Labour or the European Research Group or pro-Remain Conservative MPs are determined to oppose such a Bill, or make substantive changes to it. The middle of next month is very close to February 13, by which date, Theresa May told the Commons yesterday, “if we have not brought a revised deal back to this House…we will make a statement and, again, table an amendable motion for debate the next day. So the House will have a further opportunity to revisit this question of leaving without a deal”.
In other words, in the event of no revised deal being agreed with the EU within a fortnight, Yvette Cooper will be back, as will Dominic Grieve, as perhaps will Caroline Spelman – whose amendment declaring in effect that No Brexit is better than No Deal was carried yesterday evening. Pro-Soft Brexit and Remain Tory Ministers are waiting in the wings – Amber Rudd, Philip Hammond and others in the Cabinet; Richard Harrington, Tobias Ellwood and others outside it. The Prime Minister therefore has two weeks both to agree changes to her deal with the EU and get a revised version of it through the Commons It follows that she won less a victory yesterday evening than a reprieve.
It may not feel that like this morning. After all, May has proved that she can turn a loss into a win in a fortnight – moving from the biggest Government defeat in modern Commons history earlier this month to yesterday’s admittedly less emphatic victory. The European Research Group has proved it can see the wood through the trees, and stay together in backing the Government. The Chairman of the 1922 Committee has pulled off a personal triumph, as has the Chief Whip. The emergence of the Malthouse Compromise has demonstrated that pro-Soft and Hard Brexit Tories can work together. Above all, Grieve and Cooper have found that opposition to extension and revocation among Labour MPs can be at least as decisive as support for either among Conservative ones.
None the less, the price that the Prime Minister paid for her win was the tearing-up of yet another commitment – in this case, not to seek changes to the deal that she had agreed. She will now go to the EU armed with a Commons vote which seeks the replacement of the backstop with “alternative arrangements” – a phrase used by Michael Barnier, among others, as Graham Brady pointed out on this site yesterday. The former legitimised these recently by suggesting them himself – thus leaping on to what the EU had previously dismissed as a unicorn. However, neither the EU nor the Irish Government are at all likely to climb down from the backstop by agreeing to scrap it: the loss of face for both would be too great.
May knows this well. Hence the form of words that she deployed in the Commons after yesterday’s votes – that the Government will now seek “legally binding changes to the withdrawal agreement”. That sounds less like either the Malthouse Compromise or the Brady amendment, both of which would seek a replacement for the backstop, than a time limit (as also supported by the Bew Plan) or a unilateral right to leave, both of which propose a supplement to it. It is just possible to imagine that politics will trump theology within the EU, and that the Commission and the EU27 settle for a compromise along these lines – for a codicil or annexe or protocol or something of that kind. If it does, the Prime Minister risks the ERG and other Leavers opposing such a change as not providing watertight legal protection.
And if it doesn’t, it will be the Tory Soft Brexiteers and Remainers who will face their moment of decision. They are fundamentally opposed to No Deal – the default setting. Sixteen of them went into the lobby with Spelman yesterday. There will be more in a fortnight, in the event that no change to the backstop is agreed with the EU by then and No Deal still looms. Rudd will return to pressing for free votes. If these aren’t forthcoming (and they should not be), Harrington and Ellwood will have to decide whether or not to put their resignations where their mouths are. So will Rudd herself, as well as other Cabinet Ministers: Greg Clark, David Gauke, Philip Hammond, perhaps even David Lidington.
May’s Brexit priority since she became Prime Minister, increasingly visible as the long months have dragged on, has been keeping herself in Downing Street and her Party in one piece. So if she is unable to gain a compromise with the EU in a fortnight (and the odds must be that she will not), it follows that she will seek to kick the can down the road again – even if the road no longer exists. Yes, everything we know about her suggests that she will do then what Jeremy Corbyn did yesterday: namely, seek an extension to Article 50 rather than risk more resignations. She will try, in the nicest possible way, to muddy the waters, hinting to her Party’s Soft Brexiteers that she will never accept No Deal, and saying to its harder ones that a new deal is almost there: it just needs a little bit more time. What will happen then?