Jeremy Hunt has managed to get both Remainers and Brexiteers in a spin this weekend with his appearance on Peston on Sunday. Following reports of growing eurosceptic anger over concessions Theresa May is expected to make on the ECJ in a bid to get 'sufficient progress' at this month's EU council meeting, Hunt said his Parliamentary colleagues have a simple choice – May's Brexit or no Brexit at all:
'I think there's an even bigger point here, that the choice we face now is not between this Brexit and that Brexit; if we don't back Theresa May we will have no Brexit - and she is doing an unbelievably challenging job amazingly well.'
His comments have led government critics to joke that an arrangement which would see the end of both May and Brexit is the best Conservative policy suggestion all year. Ardent Remainers, meanwhile, claim Hunt's words are proof that Brexit can be stopped.
However, Hunt's intention isn't to stir up support for a second referendum. Instead, the Health Secretary is trying to warn those Brexiteers MPs who are beginning to see red over the government's concessions against rebelling as May is their best chance of achieving a proper Brexit. The insinuation is that they have no option but to back May and May's Brexit – as to rebel or opt for 'no deal' could bring the government down.
In late 2018, MPs will be presented with a choice when they vote on the final deal. Rather than picking between the government's Brexit or no Brexit, the choice will be to take the deal on the table – or leave with no deal at all. Hunt says this is not a choice 'between this Brexit and that Brexit'. To some in government, there is no choice as a 'no deal' is unthinkable.
In contrast, a chunk of the eurosceptic wing of the party see 'no deal' as approaching appealing. If Leave MPs conclude too many red lines have been crossed – whether it's on money, transition or the ECJ – they can vote to reject the government's deal and take a chance on 'no deal'. There may not be enough Conservatives to bring about 'no deal', but Labour could provide the extra numbers they’d need. Eurosceptic Conservatives point to the Maastricht Treaty where Labour voted against it on the grounds that Britain was opting out to the social chapter even though they agreed with the treaty in principle.
Were Parliament to opt for this 'no deal', it could bring down the government. But that in itself if not reason enough to presume arch-Brexiteers – who have spent their political lives campaigning to leave the EU – won't do it. It follows that rather than tell Brexiteers they have no choice, Cabinet diplomats would be better served spending their time setting out an inspiring Brexit vision for what the government wants to – and will – achieve with these negotiations.