The list of things about the European Commission that many people at Westminster don’t understand is long. My favourite is that in quite a lot of the EU, the Commission, regularly accused in Britain of spewing out red tape, has often been accused of wanting to deregulate domestic markets and expose cosy economic arrangements to the bracing winds of “Anglo-Saxon capitalism”.
Today though, what’s more important is this: the Commission understands British politics. Understands it very well, in fact, and sometimes better than people in the Westminster village.
Brexit is a case in point. As soon as the results of last year’s general election results were in, the Commission understood that “hard Brexit” was dead and that Theresa May’s only path led towards the sort of compromises that she set out at Chequers last week. The only questions that remained were how high a price could be extracted from the UK for that deal, and whether or not Mrs May could survive the political compromises involved.
(Incidentally, by suggesting that the Commission team expected last week’s deal I am not imputing some supernatural powers of prediction to them, or otherwise overstating the talents of people in Brussels. As far as I’m concerned, last week’s events at Chequers were extremely predictable, and predicted. The only surprise is that so many Leave-minded folk seem to have been surprised.)
So what will the Commission do, now that David Davis has walked and Boris Johnson has crawled? Everyone knows that the first requirement of politics is being able to count, and the Commission can count as well as the rest of us. The Brexiteer Tories don’t have the numbers to install one of their own as PM, which is why the more sensible Leavers don’t want to even try to create a vacancy in No 10.
Incidentally, I reckon the numbers here actually got worse for the ERG over the weekend, since Leavers are now split into two distinct groups: pro-Chequers and anti-Chequers. The former group includes Michael Gove, Dominic Raab, Andrea Leadsom and, presumably, Liam Fox and Penny Mordaunt. For good or ill, they have nailed their colours to Theresa May’s mast.
The latter group counts three who could conceivably run for the leadership – BJ, DD and JRM – but none who could actually win it. And anyone who engineered a leadership contest then lost it would be taking a very serious risk of looking like a self-indulgent fanatic (without a credible alternative plan for Brexit) at a moment of national importance. Are any of those three brave enough for that?
Equally, everyone knows that Mrs May doesn’t have the numbers to get Chequers through the Commons. Even if she had solid support in her own party and managed to buy some DUP support, the sort of deal outlined last week would have been a hard sell in Parliament. Now that what remains of the ERG will definitely oppose Chequers in its current form, there is only one way a Chequers-based deal passes the Commons, and that’s with some votes from Opposition MPs.
Again, this should not come as a surprise. The day after the election last year, I was one of several observers who wrote that a soft Brexit built on cooperation with pro-EU Labour MPs was the only long-term bet for Mrs May.
Which is where we are today. The sort of Norway-variant deal that Mrs May sketched out last week can only hope to pass the Commons if a significant number of Labour (or SNP and Lib Dem, I suppose) MPs vote for it. To do so, they would have to pass up the opportunity to shake or even topple a sitting Tory PM, and defy the orders of Jeremy Corbyn.
Why would they even consider doing so? Well, a small number are prepared to do pretty much anything to keep Mr Corbyn out of No 10, even prop up a Tory PM. But there aren’t enough of them to turn any vote. There are two things that could make it possible for pro-EU Labour MPs to support a Theresa May-authored Brexit deal. First, more concessions to make the Brexit on offer even softer. Second, acceptance that the only alternative is no deal.
Some pro-EU people in Parliament think a third option is viable, one that delays or even stops Brexit: they dream of a Commission move to suspend the Article 50 process, perhaps in response to a Commons rejection of a May deal and the likely fall of Mrs May. That explains the bizarre weekend spectacle of Remainers rejecting the (relatively sensible) Chequers deal: people like Nick Clegg are aiming for a bigger prize than the Least-Bad Brexit; they still hope for No Brexit.
I voted Remain but I think stopping Brexit is for the birds: the backlash from the 17 million would do horrible things to our already traumatised democracy and poisoned political culture. Bluntly, we have to do Brexit; all that remains to decide is whether we can the best of a bad job. However unlikely this seems, Theresa May is still the person in British politics who comes closest to trying to do that. What a time to be alive.
In that context, whispers from Brussels today that an Article 50 suspension is indeed being prepared as a contingency are dangerous; if the Commission has not yet given up on Mrs May, it will squash such talk quickly, since those whispers will only encourage Remainers to hurt, not help, the PM and her battered Chequers deal.
Never mind the pantomime playing out at Westminster today. Pay attention to what goes on in Brussels and other EU capitals. There, leaders have some big decisions to make. If they want some sort of deal with the UK, Theresa May remains their least bad option as a negotiating partner. Keeping her in place and in a position to try to sell a Brexit deal to Parliament will require making some European compromises to help her scrape together the Labour votes she’ll need to cancel out Boris and his chums. But at the same time as making her Brexit deal even softer, Brussels needs to dash the hopes of anti-Brexiteers who think the clock can be stopped.
Of course, this all supposes that the EU leaders care enough to try to save Mrs May from the abyss and to try to save Britain from outright political turmoil and the possible horror of a no deal exit. Whatever they do, the bottom line is that the truly important decisions about what comes next will be taken in Brussels, Paris and Berlin, not Britain. Did someone say “Take Back Control”?