I learned two things yesterday that will give extra frisson to those votes on Tuesday, when MPs attempt to wrest control of Brexit from the PM.
First is that the six Tory MPs on the executive of the 1922 committee that comprises all Tory MPs, and who are led by Sir Graham Brady, hope and expect the Prime Minister to give official backing to the amendment to her motion that they have all signed. It “requires the Northern Ireland backstop to be replaced with alternative arrangements to avoid a hard border; supports leaving the European Union with a deal and would therefore support the Withdrawal Agreement subject to this change”. The amendment is in the name of Andrew Murrison, and it is a revolt by the men and women in grey suits (the cliché for backbench Tory grandees) – and indeed her former deputy, Damian Green, has also signed it – to force the PM back to the negotiating table with Brussels to flush out whether there is, in practice, a negotiable Brexit deal that the Tory Party and Northern Ireland DUP could support.
“I would hope there is a three-line whip to support this,” one of the signatories told me. “We are trying to help the PM,” another said (with a hint of menace, I thought).
This puts the PM in a very tight spot.
On the one hand, she will understand the logic of Brady, Murrison et al that, if their motion were passed, that would surely demonstrate to the EU’s 27 leaders that “all” they have to do to secure parliamentary ratification of the Withdrawal Agreement, and the Brexit plan is ditch the backstop and come up with different arrangements to keep open the border.
On the other, the PM also knows that the EU’s negotiators and the Irish government would interpret her giving official backing to the amendment as, in effect, ripping up the Withdrawal Agreement. Far from encouraging the EU to amend and compromise, it could be what forces the EU’s 27 leaders to conclude that no “reasonable” deal will ever be negotiable.
There is also the risk, as I pointed out last night, that the amendment is a snake that eats itself. What do I mean? It might be sensible of the EU’s 27 leaders to say that they are happy to have another go – against their profound instincts – of looking for alternative arrangements to keep open the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic (although they are profoundly sceptical about the proposal put forward by the ERG group of Brexiters that the UK would simply promise not to ship anything to the EU that didn’t meet EU standards, and that the EU could have its own customs officials and technology at borders to make sure those standards were met). To state the magnificently obvious, they don’t actually seek a hard, no-deal Brexit.
But it is inconceivable such a compromise could be found by the deadline for Brexit of 29 March, and therefore – if the UK wants to explore a way to drop the backstop – there would have to be a significant delay to the date we leave the EU. And the point is that most of the signatories – and supporters of Murrison/Brady amendment – would say Brexit delay would be as bad or worse than the backstop, which means that fulfilling the terms of their amendment would, at a stroke, guarantee their eternal opposition to the Brexit plan. So the stakes could not be higher – and the outlook for all this could not be messier.
Now, what if the PM refuses – for what her close advisers and cabinet colleagues would say are sensible pragmatic reasons – to instruct her chief whip Julian Smith to force all her MPs, including ministers, to back the Murrison/Brady amendment? As I understand it, Brady briefed the chief whip about the amendment before it was tabled. So May can be under no illusion that her senior backbenchers expect her to put her imprimatur on their initiative.
So this is where the second thing I learned yesterday kicks in. What a number of MPs explained to me is that the idea Theresa May is safe in office for up to another year, following the failed coup by the Brexiter MPs just before Christmas, is not just wrong, but hopelessly wrong.
And truthfully after they explained why to me, I felt rather foolish. The point is that – following her ill-judged general election that cost her the Tory Party’s majority – she only survives in office thanks to the support of Northern Ireland’s ten DUP MPs (whose loyalty has been tested to breaking point by the backstop). So here, in the words of one senior Tory, is the arithmetic that is fatal to her. “All that needs to happen is that ten of us troop in to see her and tell her that we will vote against every piece of government legislation unless and until she resigns, and at that point she has to pack her bags”.
So are Brady and co plotting such a “people-in-grey-suits” coup against her in the event that she fails to give her official support to their amendment? I have no reason to believe that. But should she be anxious that such a coup won’t follow very far behind any refusal by her to tear up the backstop – or indeed a failure to prevent delay to the due date of leaving the EU? She would be naïve to ignore that threat to her survival as PM. Theresa May is not naïve.
Robert Peston is ITV’s Political Editor. This article originally appeared on his Facebook page