We are heading into uncharted waters. The great hope of No. 10 and cabinet loyalists was that once Theresa May’s Brexit plan was an international agreement, the debate would change. It wouldn’t just be the Prime Minister’s plan, but a deal between Britain and 27 other countries. They thought that this would imbue it with greater authority; that the House of Commons would embrace the deal on offer rather than opting for further uncertainty.
But that hasn’t happened. Opposition to May’s deal has hardened since Sunday’s summit. Five days of debate will now take place in the Commons and there is painfully little support for May’s plan. There is so little on the Tory benches that some junior ministers are even considering resigning so that they can speak in favour of the deal from the backbenches. They fear that without that, those opposed to the withdrawal agreement will dominate the debate.
Westminster is operating on the assumption that the government will lose the meaningful vote on 11 December, and by a quite substantial margin. This expectation has consequences. If the government is going to lose anyway, what’s the incentive for any Labour MP to enrage their party by saying they’ll back the Prime Minister? At the same time, Tory MPs are more inclined to favour their purist, rather than pragmatic, instincts.
Of course the vote has not yet actually taken place, and the past few years have taught us not to make assumptions about what will happen. Those close to May are pinning their hopes on three things. First, they hope that MPs will come to see that her plan is the only one that offers certainty. If you want to avoid no deal, the only way to be sure of doing so is to vote for this withdrawal agreement. Equally, if your worst nightmare is a second referendum with remain on the ballot paper, the only way to be certain that won’t happen is if May’s deal passes.
Second, the May circle is hoping to locate the Tory party’s secret weapon: loyalty. Cabinet ministers keep telling me that Tory associations are much less negative about the deal than MPs. The hope is that this will lead to pressure on MPs to fall into line. Indeed, May’s idea of a debate between her and Jeremy Corbyn is best seen as a way of increasing tribal Tory feeling to that end.
The third hope is that the public just want to get on with Brexit. Ministers are being sent out to argue that people simply want this done, and May’s deal is the quickest way to do that. The flaw in this argument, though, is that so much is left undecided in this agreement that the Brexit debate will continue to rage even if the deal does somehow get through parliament.
For obvious reasons, May is tight lipped about what she’ll do if she loses the vote. Cabinet loyalists, though, are clear that they expect her to go to the European Council two days later and push for some particular reassurances. Having received them, and with growing concern from both voters and business, May would then bring the withdrawal agreement back and see if she could win the vote second time round.
This strategy is risky. One influential cabinet minister tells me that ‘if it is not going to get through, it is not going to get through’, and that if the first vote is lost then May needs ‘to pivot to a different position as soon as possible’. This minister points out that David Cameron’s ‘I get that’ declaration, which he made after he lost the Commons vote on military action against Assad in 2013, limited the political damage which the defeat inflicted on him.
If May were simply to press on to a second vote after losing the first one, it is more likely that the 48 letters to Graham Brady would come in. For they wouldn’t come just from Brexit ultras but those who fear that by persisting with her policy she was making no deal more likely.
No deal is the default right now if the government’s deal fails. But the majority of the Commons are against no deal and the machinery of government would do what it could to prevent such an outcome.
One option being whispered about in the corridors of power is changing the political declaration to try to attract more support from opposition MPs. There is chatter about also signing Britain up to the European Economic Area, which would keep the UK in the single market as well as the temporary customs arrangement. But May wouldn’t be able to pull this off. She has defined the referendum result as being primarily about ending free movement. So she couldn’t entertain an arrangement that allowed it to continue.
In a sign of how extreme the situation is now becoming, there are even some in Whitehall who believe that the government could seek to rescind Article 50 if the withdrawal agreement fails in the Commons.
Another theory being discussed by ministers is finding a way to attract more Labour voters. If the UK said it wanted the temporary customs arrangement to be permanent, then May would have fulfilled the tests that Corbyn set for Labour support at his party’s conference. But May is unlikely to seek explicit Labour support in this way. Not only would trusting Corbyn and John McDonnell be rash but May, who joined the Conservative party as a teenager, would not want to go down in Tory folklore as her party’s answer to Ramsay MacDonald.
But what can May do, given that she wants her deal to pass? Well, there is one route that might work for her: a second referendum. If the Commons won’t back her deal, then maybe the country will.
This would require a massive volte-face from May, but it does offer a way to break the log jam in the way that another general election does not, given that two of the last three elections have delivered hung parliaments. Interestingly, a growing number of full-bore Brexiteers are optimistic that they could win a referendum in these circumstances, which means there might not be full-scale opposition to the idea of a three-question second referendum.
One cabinet minister is privately predicting that we are heading for the ‘gravest constitutional crisis’ in our history. This is hyperbole; the 17th century had several that were far worse. But the next few weeks will put greater strain on the constitution than any other event in the past hundred years.