Theresa May has finally managed to unite her party’s warring factions on Brexit. The only problem is that they are united against her latest proposal. With time running out to get a deal, previously loyal cabinet ministers wonder how long they should let May flog her dead Chequers horse. A growing number of Tories think it might be time to change the leader as well as her policy. I suspect the plots to oust May will reach fever pitch this weekend.
Eurosceptic and pro-EU Tory MPs are furious about a plan – confirmed by EU sources (to May’s frustration) at Thursday’s Brussels summit – to extend the transitional period after the UK’s departure by a year, until December 2021.
May hopes the EU will dilute its demand for a watertight backstop to keep Northern Ireland in the customs union and parts of the single market if this is not delivered by a UK-EU trade deal. She hopes a longer transition would replace the backstop, and persuade the EU to agree to a UK-wide customs arrangement so Northern Ireland would not be split off from the rest of the UK. But the EU still wants the backstop in the withdrawal agreement. Even though it would be unlikely to be needed, May has a very hard “sell” to Tory and DUP ministers, who don’t trust her as she has already broken so many of her own contradictory promises.
Pro-European Tories are also livid because the government has reneged on its pledge that MPs will have a “meaningful vote” on a Brexit deal. Dominic Raab, the Brexit secretary, has disclosed plans to limit the crunch Commons vote to a take-it-or-leave-it choice between May’s deal and a risky, chaotic no-deal exit next March.
With no majority, and the DUP threatening divorce, May will need every trick in the book to conjure up a Commons majority for what will likely be a threadbare deal, or “blind Brexit,” that leaves crucial issues to be settled after departure next March.
By arguing that rejecting her agreement would mean a no-deal exit, May would put enormous pressure on MPs to vote for her deal, however shabby they think it. Her “national interest” pitch will be aimed at Labour as well as Tory MPs, since she will almost certainly need some Labour votes to avoid defeat at the hands of Tory hardline Brexiteers.
But MPs should not be spooked by the spectre of no deal. If May’s deal were shot down, I believe the Commons would find a way to halt a cliff-edge departure – whether by calling for more negotiations, an extension of the Article 50 process beyond next March or a Final Say referendum. The shenanigans over the vote are designed to close off these options, by presenting the deal as a fait accompli after the initial vote, and making any amendments that followed redundant. The sneaky moves are a recognition that support for a referendum is growing.
Pro-EU Tories were reassured in June that the all-important vote would be meaningful. It’s now clear they were hoodwinked. They had the numbers to defeat the government on the EU (Withdrawal) Bill, as they had done on the meaningful vote issue last December. But Dominic Grieve, the former attorney general, backed down at the last minute in June. The government won the vote with a majority of 16 after Grieve voted against his own rebel amendment because of assurances by ministers.
The 20 or so pro-EU Tory MPs play the ball – unlike the Eurosceptics, who play the man. It’s time they started to play dirty too, and ensure the Commons secures a meaningful vote on the deal. Otherwise it will be meaningless.
May will have a lot of explaining to do about an extended transition when she reports back to MPs on the summit on Monday. She may be forced to abandon her plan. If she does not, she may unwittingly drive some Tories into supporting a rival one for the UK to remain in the European Economic Area (EEA) instead of entering a transitional period, and move to a Canada-style trade deal in the medium term. The idea, pushed by Tory MP Nick Boles, a close ally of Michael Gove, is gaining support in Toryland. Significantly, it was endorsed this week by William Hague, the former Tory leader and foreign secretary, who is an ultra-loyalist.
The three-year “status quo” transition now offered by May makes the Boles plan look more attractive. His Norway model would give the UK a quick escape from the European Court of Justice, Common Agricultural Policy and Common Fisheries Policy. Unlike the other options, Boles believes his would command majority support in the Commons, as the UK would stay in the single market and (unlike Norway) a customs union, which would solve the Irish border conundrum.
As she desperately searches for a way out of the Brexit maze, perhaps May has stumbled on a solution. The only trouble is that it is not the one she has in mind.