The fate of the new deal agreed between the Government and the EU now lies in the hands of the European Council’s members. They meet this evening to determine the length of any extension. Boris Johnson is obliged to ask for one under the terms of the Benn Act.
However, the council members will understand not only that he doesn’t want one – and there is no legal bar to that wish – but that refusing one is likely to ensure that this new deal passes through Parliament.
That is because refusing an extension would set up Saturday’s Commons vote and consequent proceedings as: this new deal – or a No Deal Brexit on October 31.
It is possible that Owen Paterson and a splinter group from the Spartans decide, if the Council indeed refuses an extension, to vote against the deal so that the Government can pursue No Deal, even at the risk of losing the Conservative whip.
And it is likely that the DUP will oppose the deal on the grounds that they are giving, though with the best part of two days to go before a decision one cannot be sure.
But a vote that pits this deal against No Deal would put other parties and MPs in a different position.
For that decision would signal the end of the campaign to have a second referendum and revoke. The group of “Labour MPs for a Deal” would thus be able to say, faced with a choice of Johnson’s deal or No Deal, that they were not prepared to vote for No Deal.
Labour as a whole might find it difficult to do so. Jeremy Corbyn would certainly be able to say to Keir Starmer: “sorry, Keir: the second referendum plan is dead. It’s back to campaigning for a general election – as I’ve always wanted.”
The Liberal Democrats might find it hard to do so too. Ditto the SNP, Plaid Cymru, Sylvia Hermon, the Independent Group for Change, the Green – and most of the Commons’ 35 independent MPs.
Dominic Grieve and the Tory second referendum supporters – Guto Bebb, Justine Greening – would also be in an invidious position. Would they really be prepared to vote down this new deal if No Deal is the alternative?
The question also applies to Philip Hammond, our columnist David Gauke, and the rest of the 21 former Tory MPs from whom the whip has been removed.
By voting with Johnson, they could get it back. We suspect that Hammond would hate the offer – but there you go. Rory Stewart, Phillip Lee, Sam Gyimah, Amber Rudd: all would have jumped ship prematurely. The last if not the first might apply to rejoin it. A door could even be left ajar for Nick Boles.
All estimates of how MPs may vote on Saturday are premature until the terms of the vote are known. But as Tom Harwood points out over at Guido Fawkes, the Government is indeed trying to set it up as this new deal v No Deal.
In which case, one might estimate the Conservative vote at say 280 MPs, add 18 of the former Tory 21, perhaps 25 of the 35 independent MPs, and Sylvia Hermon too. Plus Kate Hoey and John Mann. We make that 326 votes. If 20 or so Labour MPs abstain, Johnson would be home and dry.
It will be said that there must now be an extension because Parliament is out of time. But if the Benn Bill can be rammed through in a few days, then so potentially can a new Withdrawal Agreement. The European institutions could then follow.
So there you would have it: Grieve frustrated, Hammond seething, Gyimah wrong-footed, Stewart left high and dry…and Labour in a tactical quandry. Nigel Farage has been reduced to calling for an extension. As they say over at Downing Street, what’s not to like?
No wonder that whatever the Benn Act may say, Ministers are arguing they don’t want an extension. Because they know if votes are set up as this deal v No Deal, this deal is set to win. Over to you, European Council.