Cabinets these days are fractious affairs. Ministers take increasingly unsubtle digs at each other as they rehearse the same old arguments. But this week, Theresa May chose to have a pop at someone who wasn’t there. ‘We’re still suffering from George,’ she told her colleagues — a reference to the former chancellor George Osborne. Her complaint was that Osborne’s over-the-top threats of a punishment Budget and other such claims during the 2016 referendum campaign had made it far harder to get Tory MPs and the public to take warnings of the consequences of no deal seriously. For her, this is a big problem. Her Brexit deal will only get through because of fear of the supposed alternatives: no deal or a second referendum.
May does have a point about what this magazine was first to call Project Fear. The warnings, then, were overdone: instead of 500,000 fewer jobs after the referendum there were 700,000 more jobs. But now, when the government points to genuine cause for alarm about the consequences of a no-deal Brexit, its warnings are dismissed. It cried wolf last time and is ignored now.
At the same time, May must take her share of the blame for regularly intoning that ‘no deal is better than a bad deal’ while failing to do the contingency planning necessary to enable the country to manage the disruption of no deal. It is, for example, a remarkable demonstration of incompetence that it is only now — with fewer than 100 days to go to Brexit — that the government is doing anything to try to build up alternatives to the Dover/Calais routes.
The government’s great New Year hope was that MPs would return from the Christmas break in a more pragmatic frame of mind, more likely to accept its deal. But this has not happened. A few of the rebels have quietly peeled off, but nowhere near enough for the government to have a chance of actually winning the vote on May’s deal. In fact, a group of rebels have hardened in their views. Boris Johnson, for instance, is now openly advocating no deal. Compounding May’s problems is that the Labour MPs who are leading the charge against no deal are nowhere near backing her deal.
At the same time, the government’s attempt to get something from the EU that could change the mood at Westminster isn’t working. As one minister puts it: ‘People are looking for a ladder to climb down, but we don’t have one.’ There is talk of assurances coming out of Brussels. One Secretary of State who is familiar with the talks says they are ‘not likely to move the dial dramatically’. Another Tory grandee, who May must win over to have any chance of passing her deal, tells me that the only thing that can change things is a legally binding assurance on the backstop. But there is no sign of one coming before next week’s vote.
So what happens? Well, the government can’t really delay the vote again. But it might accept an amendment that would neuter the vote. This amendment might indicate on what basis Parliament would support the deal or just urge the UK and the EU to talk further on the backstop. This strategy isn’t guaranteed to work, and it would require John Bercow — no friend of the government — to call the amendment. However, many of the Brexit hardliners in the European Research Group privately admit that their best chance of getting no deal is to keep May’s deal in play for as long as possible, thereby running down the clock. For this reason, a good number of them would be tempted to vote for an amendment that wouldn’t endorse May’s deal but would keep it alive. This kind of procedural ruse, though, would merely stave off defeat rather than solve May’s fundamental problem.
At Westminster, everyone is engaged in trying to guess May’s Plan B — they assume that, given the vote is just days away and the numbers are against her, she must have one. But from the conversations I have had, I think the honest answer is that even she doesn’t know what she’ll do. Well-placed sources tell me that she is resistant to discussing alternatives even in private. When I asked one leading cabinet minister about what Plan B was, I was told: ‘The Prime Minister doesn’t want to contemplate one.’
Why not? It is worth remembering that May genuinely believes in her deal. She won’t want to abandon it until she absolutely has to. This means that she’ll bring it back for another go if she can. Technically, a government can’t bring a defeated piece of business back in the same parliamentary session. But inside No. 10 they are confident that if Brussels has provided any kind of tweak to the deal, the parliamentary clerks would recommend that a second vote on it should be allowed to go ahead.
Ministers think that this second vote might have more chance of success because the EU itself might offer a concession. There is a feeling that Brussels has already written off this vote, but it does want a deal and so might produce something before a second vote. No. 10 also hopes that the ticking clock might persuade some more Labour MPs to vote for it.
Privately, ministers think they have a bit more time to get the deal through than is generally appreciated. They are confident that the EU would extend Article 50, the two-year process for leaving the EU which is meant to come to an end on 29 March, to allow the UK to legislate for a deal if May wins a meaningful vote before then. Their view is that as long as the extension wouldn’t butt up against the European Parliament elections in late May, the EU would be prepared to grant it.
There is a distinct possibility that May’s deal could suffer a defeat next week from which it cannot recover. What would happen in these circumstances is uncertain. No one, perhaps including May, knows what she would do. She has quite deliberately burnt all her boats on the beach, believing that this increases her chances of victory in this parliamentary battle. That means there is no obvious tactical retreat available to her.
But May is a survivor. She will settle on the course that is most likely to keep her premiership going. That would probably involve trying to find a Brexit deal that could win the support of the Commons. That would be a deal that kept the UK even more closely aligned with EU rules than May’s current one does.