- There are four possible Brexit outcomes: No Deal, No Brexit (presumably after a second referendum), May’s Deal or a different deal (Norway Plus – or something like it). The EU may offer extension terms that the Commons is unwilling to accept. Or the legislation to remove March 29 from the EU Withdrawal Act may not pass. Or a new departure date may kick in at the end of extension. But after this week’s events in the House, the odds of No Deal have receded dramatically.
- This being so, Theresa May will now surely bring her deal – perhaps revised further and perhaps not – back to the Commons next week. Yes, her chicken game goes on. She is threatening Brexiteer MPs with a choice of her deal or No Brexit. Her gambit is slowly working. On Wednesday, 39 former Conservative MP opponents switched, and went into the Government lobby.
- But time – or maybe speed – is not on her side. Slowly isn’t fast enough. Her deal lost first time round by 230. Last week, by 149. Look down the list of names of the 75 Tory MPs who held out against her deal on Tuesday: Bill Cash, Mark Francois, Andrea Jenkyns – these Leavers and others are almost certain to hold out. And don’t forget their Remain equivalents: Justine Greening, Dominic Grieve, Phillip Lee.
- There are doubtless Labour and other opposition MPs who would vote for May’s deal in a secret ballot. But they are unlikely to come on board until or unless they believe she will win. Until they move, she can’t do so; if she can’t do so, they won’t move. Standoff. No wonder Downing Street is now mulling a fourth “meaningful vote” after the EU Council on March 21.
- What could shift some of those 75 Tory holdouts to join those 39 switchers? A slice of the former are looking for a reason to jump. It may yet be offered by Geoffrey Cox, by way of the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties. Edward Leigh has been banging this drum for weeks. Steve Barclay tapped lightly on it during his speech on Wednesday.
- The Attorney-General believes the convention can ultimately be invoked if the EU behaves unreasonably – and that under its provisions the UK could quit the backstop unilaterally in such circumstances. The Brexit Secretary’s words seemed to show that Cox has converted the Government to his view that the Withdrawal Agreement will be incompatible with the Belfast Agreement if the EU reneges on its obligations.
- But practical politics may prove more persuasive than international law (and in any event, the potential efficacy of deploying the convention is disputed). If the DUP shifts to support the deal, some of those 75 will follow, on the ground that one should not be more royal than the king. Jacob Rees leans in that direction; Francois against it.
- The prospect of a third meaningful vote has given May a window: try to rush her deal through before Hillary Benn, Oliver Letwin, Yvette Cooper et al have their own third bite at the cherry – namely, getting the Commons to take control of the negotiation. Cooper’s bid in January failed by 23 votes. Yesterday, Benn’s fell by only two. The cross-party push is nearing its goal. If May fails next week, it will surely succeed.
- Which takes us to the EU. Its negotiating ploy now will presumably be to offer a long extension, watch the protests from the Government and Commons alike…and wait for both to duly fold – thus fulfilling the prophecy of George Eustice. Faced with a choice of a long extension or No Deal on March 29, MPs will surely opt for the former.
- If May’s deal goes down again next week, the landscape looks roughly as follows. The March 29 date comes out of law (which it is set to do either way). There is a long extension. Letwin and company take control of the Commons. And a scrabble to the death begins between backers of Norway Plus and a Second Referendum, with the European Research Group regularly hurling spanners into the works.
- Whether or not her deal passes, the Prime Minister’s goose looks well and truly caught, if not cooked. If the deal wins out, there will be a clamour from Conservative MPs for someone else to negotiate the talks on the Political Declaration. If it doesn’t, and there is a long extension, she is vulnerable to attempts to oust her. Graham Brady or some Cabinet members or both would use the time to try to winkle her out.
- No wonder Downing Street is pushing for a short extension: it would help keep May in place for a few months yet – because none of those players believe that the Conservatives could hold a leadership election during a negotiation set against a tight June deadline. Whatever happens, the Party faces trouble on the doorstep and in the ballot box during May’s local elections.
- Meanwhile, Party discipline is breaking down completely. One of the reasons why the Prime Minister fended off Benn yesterday was the backlash against Greg Clark, David Gauke, David Mundell and Amber Rudd – the defiers of the whip from Tuesday. They and others didn’t dare abstain again. But the trend is clear – with one Tory Brexiteer, Chris Chope, threatening to help bring the Government down.
- Meanwhile, Labour has its own problems: its split on a second referendum yesterday was only the latest of many. In the event of Letwin and allies taking control of the Commons, Jeremy Corbyn and Labour would have the opportunity to help shape a Norway Plus-type Brexit. Would they want to share the responsibility – and the blame? What about the pro-second referendum policy that Corbyn clearly detests?
- “For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face”. This attempt to think through what happens next could be wildly wrong – the EU could end up vetoing extension altogether, for example. But we are clearly witnessing a political realignment within the parties if not outside them altogether. The shifting of those tectonic plates has thrown up the Independent Group and the Brexit Party.
- MPs don’t want a general election, but one may somehow be forced on them. It is the logical endpoint of Commons stalemate. But a poll would be unlikely to bring resolution. And it would certainly risk mass abstention – or else Lega Nord and La Marche-style revolts: with Nigel Farage, or something harder, at one end and Gina Miller, so to speak, at the other.
Our survey. Expectation of a Conservative-led Government after the next election is at its lowest this year.
Get our free daily email
Start your day with all the latest Conservative news, insight and analysis.