This site’s reading of the Prime Minister’s Commons’ reaction to the record defeat of her deal was that she would none the less stick with it. Our assessment of her intentions suggested that cross-party talks would lead nowhere, since opposition MPs would insist on Customs Union membership. More broadly, they would push her further towards a Norway-type solution. Either of these ideas would divide her own Party further – and the backbench rebellion against her deal is already the biggest Tory revolt of modern times. Furthermore, roughly half the Cabinet is opposed to a softer Brexit. More than half of Tory MPs take the same view. So will most Party members. She is now formally safe from a confidence vote for the best part of a year, but other ways of ousting a Conservative leader can be found in a crisis.
In these circumstances, May was always likely to cling to her Party rather than go cross-party – especially since support from Labour MPs is bound to be even less reliable than backing from the European Research Group. In the last resort, dealing with Jacob Rees-Mogg is easier than dealing with Yvette Cooper.
We aren’t right about everything – far from it – but appear to have been correct in this case. Cabinet members told ConservativeHome over the weekend that a core weakness in the Prime Minister’s position is that the EU doesn’t know what the Commons wants, and believes that she can’t persuade the House to back her in any event. So she must now demonstrate that it will support the deal if the EU will agree to in exchange to amend the backstop. That means relying on Tory MPs, the ERG included, to carry a vote to that effect, with the aid of the DUP. There is excitable talk of a new Anglo-Irish treaty being proposed, based perhaps on the David Davis “reserve parachute” proposal, or something like it.
We suspect that May is more likely to propose a version of the so-called Murrison amendment, which proposed slapping an expiry date on the backstop. Readers will remember that the Speaker refused to select it for debate last week. The ERG is in emollient mood at present, and both it and other Brexiteers might swallow this plan. Whether the EU would do so too is rather more debatable, to put it mildly.
The Prime Minister’s scheme therefore shortens the odds on No Deal – since it revives her game of chicken, eats up more Parliamentary time, and leaves No Deal as the default setting as March 29 approaches. Philip Hammond and the rest of the Cabinet Remainers and Soft Brexiteers know this. The next move, as the Prime Minister prepares to make a Commons statement today, is theirs. First, they must brief that it will fail and that cross-party talks must be revived, perhaps under the Lidington-Gove-Smith troika. This is already starting to happen. Second, there will doubtless be further talk of mass Ministerial resignations, featuring Richard Harrington and others. Third, they will brief in favour of free votes on the battery of pro-Customs Union, Norway Plus and Second Referendum proposals due next week.
Finally, they will throw their weight behind the extension of Article 50. Hammond hinted at precisely such a development during the phone conversation between senior Ministers and big business leaders last week. This is where the Wesminster Village conversation will go as the mood in parts of the rest of the country hardens in favour of No Deal.
The minor parties in the Commons mostly back extension already. So do the band of Soft Brexit Labour MPs among whom Yvette Cooper is prominent. So do Dominic Grieve and Nick Boles and assorted other Conservative Second Referendum or Norway Plus or Customs Union supporters. They can rely on the Speaker’s aid. Jeremy Corbyn will be very reluctant to nod assent. Backing extension would mean legitimising claims of Brexit betrayal in Labour’s midlands and northern heartlands. But it is hard to see where else he can go. He is opposed to a second referendum. Much of his own party outside London is resistant to it. All his eggs are in the basket of Labour’s fantasy renegotiation. What little credibility it has left will soon vanish if he does not back a later deadline for it. That requires supporting extension.
Which leaves the Prime Minister. The logic of her chicken game requires a firm deadline – in order to bluff MPs into supporting her deal rather than risk No Deal or No Brexit. This explains why she has been resistant to extension when the idea has been pushed by Lidington and others.
None the less, in the last resort, a bid for extension without a clear outcome in sight would represent kicking the can down the road again, or trying to. And we all know that May isn’t averse to doing that. Menaced by Remainer resignations and a No Deal deadline, it is conceivable that she would throw what weight she has left behind extension. If a Grieve or Cooper or other Bill is successful, she could argue there is no alternative.
But let the fledgling extension consensus be warned: to put back the date of Article 50 would revive both the hard right, in the democratic form of Nigel Farage, and perhaps the far right, in its various undemocratic guises. All would claim that extension was but a milestone on the road to revocation. And they might well be correct.
Today, the Prime Minister is swinging towards her Party’s Leavers. Tomorrow, it could be back towards its Remainers. From one perspective, it is all a great, mad, glorious game – chess crossed with chicken crossed with the wild card of the Speaker, as we’ve said before. It would be fabulous entertainment were most of the country not heartily sick of it – and the honouring of the biggest electoral verdict in our country’s history at stake.