The least bad outcome of today’s Commons votes is that European Research Group members, and other Brexiteer MPs, vote for the amendment about which Graham Brady writes on this site this morning (assuming that the Speaker selects it).
They may be right to object that adding a codicil in addition to the backstop, rather than simply scrapping the latter, would not provide the legal certainty required to guarantee an end to its effects. By floating the prospect of a codicil, Sir Graham thereby alienated some pro-Leave Tory MPs without necessarily persuading some pro-Remain ones.
But Theresa May doesn’t want to present the EU with the Brady proposal word for word. What she is aiming to do is to show it that the Commons isn’t opposed to everything, but can agree on something – and that at the core of that something is the removal of the backstop as it stands. Hence her decision to whip in favour of the Brady amendment – a late decision, but better late than never.
The new Malthouse compromise, agreed on by Conservative Soft and Hard Brexiteers alike, could then supplement the Brady proposal: in a nutshell, this seeks to replace the present backstop with a different one, which would either allow a “smooth transition” to a deal or put in place a “triple safety net” if there is no deal.
Or else the Prime Minister could try the Bew plan, which may be more realistic. Either way, neither the EU nor the Irish Government will be willing, surely, to drop the idea of a backstop entirely. But replacing it, as the Malthouse idea proposes, or ameliorating and time-limiting it and, as Bew suggests, may be a different matter – especially since Michel Barnier has now let the unicorn out of the bag over maxfac.
If the Brady amendment is not carried, the following sequence of events is almost certain. Remainers and Soft Brexiteers in the Government and Commons will say that May tried to take the ERG with her, and failed; that the only option left for her is to go with them; and that this means extending Article 50, doing a deal with Labour MPs, and then accepting either Norway Plus or a second referendum.
A further weakened Prime Minister would no longer be in a position to resist. The power pendulum within the Government would swing back to David Lidington, the group of pro-Soft Brexit Cabinet Ministers fronted by Amber Rudd, and the policy instincts of the civil service. And the Conservative Party would face the prospect of a formal split, paving the way for a Marxist government under Jeremy Corbyn.
DUP MPs meet this morning. If they decide that the Brady amendment is at least a start, and declare that it should form the basis of an approach to Brussels, ERG members should take note. It may of course be that there is some procedural twist later today that ConservativeHome can’t anticipate this morning, but the choice for pro-Brexit MPs as we write is a straightforward one.
The stark truth is that by angling for everything they risk getting nothing – whether the Cooper amendment passes today or not. Plus the risk of paving the way either for Brexit in name only, or for a second referendum that could tear the country apart, whatever the result.