James Forsyth

Will the government find a way to avoid Tuesday’s vote?

Will the government find a way to avoid Tuesday’s vote?
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Key Cabinet Ministers are urging Theresa May to avoid a vote on her Brexit deal on Tuesday night. I report in The Sun this morning that they fear that if it goes ahead, the government will lose by a margin so large that it could bring the whole thing crashing down. One Secretary of State tells me that it would be ‘group suicide’ to press ahead with the vote.

Number 10 say that no decision on whether to find a way to avoid the vote has been taken yet; senior figures there say that decision will not be taken until Monday. But they do admit that they are making little headway in trying to quell this rebellion. One Cabinet Minister tells me that they are heading for a three-figure defeat.

A way to avoid such a humiliating defeat would be to find an amendment that could pass the Commons. This means there would be no vote on May’s deal as it currently stands; enabling the government to argue that it hadn’t actually been defeated. Though, as one government source admits, voters would be left baffled by this procedural trick.

This approach isn’t guaranteed to work either. It relies on John Bercow selecting the amendment—which is far from certain: he isn’t exactly the government’s friend. Second, some Tory rebels are itching to defeat the government and so would vote against any amendment regardless.

What Theresa May thinks the way ahead is remains unclear even to her inner Cabinet, much to their frustration. ‘The main problem is that it is very difficult to read the PM’, one tells me.  Tory MPs are also becoming increasingly irritated with May. One senior backbencher who is normally sympathetic to her, complains that she has become ‘completely messianic about the backstop’. This source says that Tory MPs ‘want to hear a solution rather than this is the only choice and they’re stupid’.

Allies of Theresa May are deeply pessimistic about the EU offering any meaningful concessions. Their view is that the EU think that the alternatives to May’s deal are either a softer Brexit or a second referendum and so have little incentive to offer much up.

Not everyone in the Cabinet is so sure. One senior Cabinet Minister, with Prime Ministerial ambitions, has been explaining to junior ministers in detail how they’d negotiate a better deal on the backstop.

Tory leadership contenders are readying themselves. They calculate that if the vote goes ahead this week May will lose by a big margin, the 48 letters will then go in and that May may well lose that vote of confidence—triggering a contest.

If May does go ahead with this vote on Tuesday, she’ll be betting her premiership on keeping the margin of defeat respectable. It would be a mighty gamble.