The consequences can be argued either way. If the Government is defeated again in the Commons later today, and the cause is European Research Group or other pro-Brexit MPs withholding support, this could turn out be to helpful to the Prime Minister – because the EU will conclude that she needs concessions on the Brexit deal she has agreed to get it though the House.
More likely, a loss of this kind would be harmful, because the EU would judge in consequence that Theresa May really can’t get MPs to back her for very long about anything whatsoever. That would make them less inclined, not more, to rework the backstop. Which in turn would risk the Cooper amendment, or something like it, being carried in the Commons sooner rather than later. Which would make Brexit less likely to happen in any form at all.
Either way, the central problem for Downing Street is that trust in it, from all parts of the Parliamentary party, is very low indeed. The success of the Brady amendment a fortnight ago only masked this problem, rather than solving it. The ERG doesn’t trust the Prime Minister to seek meaningful changes to the backstop. Nor does it believe that she will pursue the solution proposed by the Malthouse Compromise – but, rather, will aim for additions to the backstop rather than changes in its text, let alone scrapping it (as the Brady amendment proposed).
Furthermore, the ERG itself isn’t united on its own aims. Some of its members, plus other Brexiteering MPs, could live with a codicil to the backstop. Others insist that the problems posed by May’s deal reach much wider than the backstop, anyway: this point was obscured by the whole group throwing its weight behind the Brady amendment. There is no way of knowing how the numbers break down. What is clear that Olly Robbins’ overheard conversation in a Brussels bar has done her no good whatsoever.
Whatever Number Ten’s intentions when it drafted the terms of its motion for debate today, the ERG is now even more suspicious of May than it was before – over her intentions in relation to extension, and to the Customs Union, as well as to the backstop. And no wonder, since it is clear that under the latest timetable the Government will almost certainly need a short technical extension, at best.
This is because she is simply running out of time for a Withdrawal Bill, and other necessary measures, to pass Parliament before March 29 even if a revised deal wins MPs’ approval next month. That Downing Street continues to deny this helps to explain why trust, as well as time, is almost exhausted.