Now that the coup of the plastic spoons appears to have failed – Jacob Rees-Mogg and his accomplices could not even synchronise their pocket-watches – Theresa May finds herself back where she has been all along: strengthened by her weakness. This is a remarkable situation for any prime minister but not, for May, an unprecedented one.
It helps that her enemies are so utterly incompetent. The sallow men of the European Research Group are not only not a government in waiting but not a collection of kingmakers either. Just as Voltaire quipped that the Holy Roman Empire was in fact none of these things, so we may say something similar about the ERG.
But, in fairness to the Moggists, they are not the only group suffering from delusions of influence. There is plenty of that to go around and wishful thinking is the currency of the moment. This has long been apparent amongst the hardcore Brexiteers but they are increasingly meeting their match in diehard Remainers for whom “No Brexit” now shimmers as a tantalising mirage.
All across Westminster, however, politicians are deeply invested in seeing the things they want to see. Thus the Brexiteers imagine that a deal more advantageous to UK interests may replace the deal the Prime Minister has put on the table. At no point have they managed to explain how and why the EU might reopen negotiations it considers concluded and that, moreover, some EU states worry is actually too generous to the United Kingdom. Yet again, the Brexiteers forget there are two parties to a negotiation and each has an interest to protect. In those circumstances it is only natural that the larger, more powerful, party that has less to lose from the negotiation has the upper hand. Almost everything that has happened during these negotiations stems from that blunt, punishing, truth.
Nevertheless, if the Brexiteers are deluded they are not the only ones. Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP believe there are several alternatives to this agreement though her own preference – for staying in the single market and the customs union – does not, in point of fact, yet appear to be one of them. Meanwhile, it is not easy to ascertain whether Labour’s position is the result of deep cynicism or laughable ignorance. Declaring that Britain must enjoy the same benefits outside the EU as it did inside it is a policy of such superlative witlessness it cannot possibly, you think, be what Labour truly believes.
And yet it is possible this is the case, given how confused Jeremy Corbyn seems to be about everything else. Appearing on Sky News at the weekend he suggested an alternative deal could be negotiated during the transition period. That the transition period only kicks in *after* a withdrawal deal has been agreed appears not to have penetrated the dear gourd-grower’s brain.
No deal means no transition and, consequently, a hard, swift, Brexit of the hardest kind and for which the country is not remotely prepared. At present, any objective analysis of Labour policy must suggest that this is where the party would take us.
Meanwhile, the clock ticks on. Parliament might reject the Prime Minister’s deal but the “meaningful” vote is actually really a symbolic vote. There is no alternative plan and even if there was it would not automatically replace the deal that has been negotiated. The alternative to this deal is not a better deal, it is no deal at all. Because no deal is the *default* position and the whole point of the withdrawal negotiations has been to avoid that default. Only then can talks about the long-term future arrangement of relations between the UK and the EU begin.
Again, Remainers pressing for a better deal make the same error as Brexiteers who think they can summon the power of magic beans to win a deal that better advances their own interests. That is, they forget that the EU would have to agree to reopen negotiations and, in all likelihood, grant the UK an extension to the time available in which these negotiations could take place. And why would they do that?
At this stage, Remainers and Brexiteers are all taking their cues form Mr Micawber and trusting that something will turn up to save them. Perhaps it might but there doesn’t seem to be any great evidential reason to suppose it will. That then leaves us with May’s deal. But if it fails to get through parliament it is not automatically replaced by anything else; all that exists is the void and thus the default result of no withdrawal agreement. Which is why, as matters stand and if I were forced to offer a prediction, I would guess that May’s deal will eventually pass the Commons. Just not at the first time of asking.