As the prime minister walks up the main staircase in No. 10, he or she must pass the portrait of every previous occupant of the office. It is the British equivalent of the slave standing behind the Roman general and whispering ‘Remember you are mortal’ because the career of nearly every prime minister, no matter how distinguished, has ended in failure.
Theresa May must find two of these portraits particularly haunting. Robert Peel passed the repeal of the corn laws in May 1846 with the backing of the Whigs and others, but was then forced to resign as prime minister the following month as the Tories split. Ramsay MacDonald, the first Labour prime minister, was persuaded that a minority government couldn’t deal with a national crisis and so formed one of national unity in 1931. To this day, he is still reviled by his own party.
Peel and MacDonald provide a reminder of what happens to prime ministers who rely on opposition votes to pass their defining legislation for them. After her historic 230-vote defeat last week, May seemed destined to follow in their footsteps. It was hard to see how she could obtain a majority for a Brexit deal otherwise.
But she was saved from that fate by Jeremy Corbyn’s own tribalism. If Corbyn had stood up on Tuesday night and set out his own conditions for backing a deal, a customs union, say, and continuing alignment with EU social and environmental rules, May would have come under huge pressure to accede to his demands. The great and the good would have urged her to ‘put the national interest first’ and come to an agreement. Many in her own Cabinet would have urged her to do so.
But instead, Corbyn went for a confidence vote, and that, predictably, returned British politics to its default tribal setting. A Commons that had defeated the government by 230 votes on its most important piece of legislation, declared that it had confidence in that same government 24 hours later. ‘Corbyn, in a way, saved her,’ one cabinet minister observes.
After that confidence vote some cross-party talks took place, but because the Labour leadership was not participating they didn’t yield much: it is nigh-on-impossible to find 116 opposition votes for anything if the official opposition isn’t involved. Indeed, all these talks succeeded in doing was proving that there isn’t a deliverable, Commons majority for anything much.
The cabinet minister most heavily involved in these talks was David Lidington. Lidington was a passionate Remainer and is deeply sympathetic to the idea of a customs union with the EU. Yet he conceded during the cabinet’s Sunday conference call that there is no straightforward Commons majority for a customs union as most of those who want it also want a second referendum or something else. Even more revealingly, the other cabinet minister involved in the talks, Michael Gove, warned colleagues that the parliamentary logjam was such that they might end up with a general election.
The complicated Commons maths is one of the reasons why May has been driven back towards her own party and the DUP as she searches for a majority. In addition, the withdrawal agreement doesn’t just require the government to win a meaningful vote but a whole series of votes as the agreement needs to be put into domestic law. There would be little point in assembling a cross-party coalition to win a meaningful vote, if it couldn’t hold together to pass the subsequent legislation.
Equally important, though, is that May has no desire to split her own party. She joined the Tories as a teenager, met her husband at a Young Conservatives bop and still goes out canvassing regularly. A Tory split would cause her emotional — as well as political — pain.
But May’s decision to go back to her own party is not without risk. It will only work if she can show that her own Brexit hardliners and the DUP are prepared to back an amended deal. Not even all of her cabinet are convinced this is the case. David Gauke, the Justice Secretary, made clear at Tuesday’s meeting that he didn’t think enough Tory MPs would back her deal even if the EU gave ground on the backstop. His scepticism is shared in Brussels. They look at the parliamentary maths and calculate that if May wants her deal to pass she’ll end up having to placate not the hardliners but those opposition MPs who want a softer Brexit. To even get a hearing in Brussels, May will have to show that a backstop change would get the deal through the Commons .
At cabinet this week, the Foreign Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, argued that the way to do this was to get the Commons to vote for the deal with a hypothetical change to the backstop — and then take that back to the EU. Several other cabinet ministers support this approach. This, they reason, would put pressure on the EU to amend the backstop. Several cabinet ministers were arguing for this before last week’s disastrous vote. But May never embraced the strategy.
May now needs to show that a changed backstop would get the withdrawal agreement through the Commons before parliament begins to take no deal off the table. This means that the government has to show the EU that the Commons would support the deal in these circumstances by next Tuesday, at the latest.
This won’t be easy. There are some Tory Brexit ultras whose objections to the withdrawal agreement go far beyond the backstop. One leading member of the European Research Group, the most significant Brexiteer bloc in the party, who is trying to find a compromise with the government has warned cabinet ministers that 15 to 20 Tory Brexiteers will vote against the deal come what may.
The question is whether this hard core realises that the Commons is determined to stop no deal and so some kind of deal is needed if this government is to take Britain out of the EU. If they don’t, then May might want to turn Peel and MacDonald’s portraits to the wall.