Last week, Labour opponents of May’s deal were threatened with No Deal. This morning, Conservative ones are being menaced with a general election – if the new shiny gleaming Oliver Letwin-guided Commons settles on a Brexit policy contrary to the Conservative Manifesto.
These warnings would have more bite were Downing Street consistent. May’s-deal-or-no-deal threat last week was hinted at by her in a Commons statement and privately in meetings. Yesterday, she about-turned, and said that “Unless this House agrees to it, No Deal will not happen”.
This is incorrect. The EU has the option of simply imposing No Deal on April 12, if Parliament does not consent to the deal by then, whether the UK agrees with the move or not. The Prime Minister made that clear in her statement after last week’s summit – and also yesterday, when she also said that on April 12 in that circumstance “we would either leave with No Deal or we would “indicate a way forward before this date for consideration by the European Council” – thus contradicting herself within the same statement.
It is also far from clear that an election would not turn, at least as far as the Party is concerned, into a kind of latter-day “coupon election”, with Tory candidates standing on different manifestos. Second referendum supporters would presumably not back a manifesto based on the deal. Nor, we must assume, would the “Spartans”. May could seek to deselect them all, of course, but that would be to ride roughshod over local Associations – and might not work electorally in any event. Or she could let a thousand Brexit flowers bloom among Conservative candidates…and thus risk returning to the Commons no better placed than before in the event of a Tory victory. If a Marxist Labour Party did not win outright altogether.
This election speculation assumes that the Fixed Terms Parliament would not prove an insuperable obstacle to a snap poll. Conservative MPs hate the very idea of a snap poll, let alone of the Prime Minister leading them into it. There is also the potential for Jeremy Corbyn somehow to form a government in the present Parliament. And one must never forget the fragility of May’s grip on office and the possibility of a leadership election. The landscape is so misty that it is hard to see where the journey will end.
What is clear enough, however, is that May is making a desperate push to bring her deal back for a third time – Speaker permitting, of course. And she, the European Research Group and the DUP are acting out a sort of grandmother’s-footsteps-in-reverse. ERG members are reluctant to move before the DUP does (and vice-versa).
The DUP is also enraged by the Prime Minister suddenly, as they see it, magicking up a new obstacle to No Deal, namely the lack of a devolved government in Northern Ireland. Furthermore, May herself could be willing to go, according to the Sun – but only, presumably, if she can be sure of her deal passing. If at all. We have a Mexican standoff.
Meanwhile, our Prime Minister in name only waits for our Prime Minister in all but name – namely, Oliver Letwin. Today, he sits triumphantly astride the Commons tiger. Tomorrow, for all he or anyone else knows, it could shrug him off and devour him.