It has all tremendously backfired. The Brexiteer European Research Group (ERG), now effectively led by arch-Eurosceptic Steve Baker, has continued to walk through the same lobby as Corbyn’s Labour Party and the SNP, apparently making bedfellows with opportunists looking for a General Election in the former case, and diehard Remainers looking to frustrate the referendum in the latter.
Last Friday the Prime Minister, in a desperate bid to procure more time from the European Council, tried to bring the bare-bones part of her deal – the Withdrawal Agreement – to Parliament for approval, only to be defeated a humiliating third time. In spite of stripping out the more widely objected-to Political Declaration, which is too committed to harmonization for some and too vague in its guarantees for others, 34 Tories MPs defied the whip, placing the hapless May in the most impossible of positions with only 14 days to go.
When questioned on his voting intention in the Commons, veteran Maastricht rebel Sir Bill Cash insisted that he was not in fact jeopardizing Brexit; he simply did not believe that No Deal would in reality be stopped, he claimed. After all, nothing could be worse than the backstop and its threat to our constitutional integrity.
Well, that claim has become a bit embarrassing now. Yesterday Yvette Cooper, in a plot hatched alongside Sir Oliver Letwin, forced a bill through the House of Commons which wrests control of EU exit day from the Prime Minister and passes it to MPs; if this bill is approved in the Lords (they are currently debating the bill), it will grant Parliament the power to set the length of Article 50 extensions domestically and to instruct Theresa May to request such extensions from the EU. European leaders may not agree to these, of course, but the view is widespread in Government that they will do so if they scent the possibility of soft Brexit on the horizon. In other words, Parliament will have completely blocked out No Deal.
All along the ERG have viewed the Withdrawal Agreement and No Deal as the two options between which the nation must choose, with the latter being the less egregiously offensive. Now, if May’s deal does not pass, the alternatives include a long extension with the humiliation of returning MEPs in May’s European elections, capitulation to the red herring of a “permanent customs union”, a General Election, a second referendum, or a revocation of Article 50 in which the whole project is cancelled altogether. Most likely is some combination of these outcomes. By handing decision-making power over Brexit to Corbyn, Letwin and the European Council, the ERG have empowered their enemies and potentially scuppered their own cause.
While constitutional vandalism wreaked havoc today in Parliament, Theresa May suffered fierce criticism from her own party, including Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson, Leader of the House Andrea Leadsom and leadership hopeful Boris Johnson, as Jeremy Corbyn was invited into Downing Street for compromise talks. The UK’s chief Brexit negotiator Olly Robbins (of Brussels bar gaffe fame) was present, indicating that the discussions are being taken with the utmost seriousness. It seems that his role was partially to explain to Jeremy Corbyn what a customs union is – now he’s making decisions he actually needs to know – and to point out that no permanent state of future relations can, as a matter of EU law, be made legally binding in the Withdrawal Agreement. Given that the lack of a binding commitment on this has been Corbyn’s chief criticism of May’s deal (he had to latch onto something), this must have been somewhat awkward for Britain’s least lovable old socialist. Then again, he isn’t known for his keen sense of personal shame.
All may not be lost, however. While the ERG have (rightly) taken flak in the media for their stubborn short-sightedness, the real root of May’s parliamentary woes has been that Labour has voted against a deal with which it is largely in agreement and the changes to which the Opposition would like to see are not in fact possible. Whether it’s a customs union, environmental protections or a commitment to workers’ rights, all of these can only be guaranteed in the Declaration on the future relationship. That means by legal default they cannot be set in stone. While performing the function of an Opposition these have been easy sticks with which to beat the Prime Minister. Labour’s goal all along has not been to secure a more agreeable deal, but to bring down the Government and secure an election at all costs. Now Corbyn and Keir Starmer are being asked what they actually want, their bluff has been called.
The EU are keen to get a deal agreed – they have much to lose from No Deal, arguably more than we do – and have shown some room for manoeuvre, such as their minor concessions over the backstop made in Strasbourg. They have declared that while a commitment to a customs union cannot go into the Withdrawal Agreement, it could be laid down in some kind of supplementary document as has happened before. Or it could just be worked up more fully in the Political Declaration. A future Tory Prime Minister could, of course, then deviate from this provided they had the support of Parliament.
Labour may say that such a non-binding commitment isn’t good enough. But if as a result of her talks with the Opposition May concedes to making Corbyn’s binding customs union request, only to have the EU rebuff it as impossible, that pretty much kills it dead in the water as a line of attack. This will throw into sharper relief the fact that the Withdrawal Agreement in its current form has to pass, regardless of what type of Brexit you want, and will expose Labour’s objections as disingenuous. This could put pressure on Labour backbenchers to fall behind the deal as the leadership’s position becomes untenable.
In addition to suffocating Labour’s plan by exposure, the best move May can now make is to threaten her own backbenchers with the possibility of no Brexit at all if they refuse to move, or the spectre of a long extension and General Election resulting in a crypto-Marxist Government and / or the softest of soft Brexits. With a legal block on No Deal and Article 50 in the hands of a Remain-dominated Parliament, May’s deal is the only Brexit the Tories are going to get.
With the logic of the Labour position undermined and the necessity of the Agreement to get any sort of Brexit now more apparent than ever, it’s clear that the factor that has been missing from all sides is reality. If it actually dawns on our parliamentarians, May could see a rally for the deal next week. Otherwise, Brexit stands a good chance of being cancelled.