Listen carefully in Westminster and you can hear the sound of gears grinding. Some hardcore Brexiteers are attempting to shift into ‘reverse’ on the question of supporting the Prime Minister’s friendless Withdrawal Agreement. The Democratic Unionists are talking the language of ‘yes possibly’ rather than ‘no, no, no’ over the ‘Irish backstop’ – a significant conversion for a party which has defined itself for decades by the word ‘no’. Meanwhile, some members of the European Reform Group (R of Conservative MPs are contriving to see merits in an agreement they roundly denounced a few weeks ago.
Brexit has moved a long way from the debate of lofty high-principle its advocates once cast it in. It is now a head-counting exercise, with Theresa May attempting any and every ploy to get MPs behind the agreement. A group of Labour MPs – maybe 30 or 40 – are being bidden with red carpet treatment at No.10; offers of cash for their constituencies; and promises of changes to labour law which would be attractive to MPs with union links. Some will fall for it.
The Brexiteers’ motives for retreat are not too difficult to grasp. If we get to an impasse with both no-deal and the Prime Minister’s ‘deal’ rejected by Parliament, the case for the Government itself conceding a People’s Vote becomes overwhelming. The government would stand perhaps a 50:50 chance of winning a referendum with an option to remain against her appeal to ‘get Brexit over with’ where Parliament had proved unpersuadable.
But for the Brexiteers, whatever their bravado, the risks of losing Brexit altogether in a referendum are all too real – after all, the public is swinging decisively behind Remain. The more pragmatic Tory backbenchers are beginning to see the merits of the strategy, attributed to Michael Gove, of swallowing the less palatable aspects of the Withdrawal Agreement, like the ‘Irish backstop’ and the £39billion financial settlement, in order to get Brexit ‘over the line’; and then to shape the subsequent Brexit process to their design.
All of this is giving Downing Street material with which to be positive about their prospects, and the pro-Brexit media is duly obliging by talking up their chances of winning the ‘meaningful vote’. But the Prime Minister would be wrong to relax too easily. Pragmatism is not a quality readily associated with the ERG and its followers. Even if the DUP pronounces itself satisfied on the ‘Irish backstop’, the more ideological of the Brexiteers with then resurface with all their other objections to the Withdrawal Agreement. They will ask themselves why the Remainers in the Cabinet and the likes of Ken Clarke and Nicky Morgan – who see permanent ‘vassalage’ as an acceptable ‘second best’ to EU membership – are willing to sign up to it. They will be aware that there is a two-year transition, potentially extendable, in which we remain subject to the rules of the single market (with no say over them), unable to sign new ‘trade deals’ with the USA and others and operating under the aegis of the European Court of Justice.
This prosaic and uncertain reality is all such a far cry from the kind of sudden liberation that Brexiteers promised. They are surely unlikely to undertake their journey from anger and fanatical zeal to calculated pragmatism en masse on only the second time of asking. They have, after all, been telling us that a ‘clean break’ and operating ‘under WTO rules’ is straightforward. The prospect of a Conservative leadership contest in which the party membership – who believe Brexit can and should be a simple endeavour – will be looking for a candidate who has fought in the last ditch for a ‘real Brexit’. Any candidate appealing to the party base will not want to appear ‘weak’ on Brexit. And a new leader who doesn’t appeal to the party base faces a Ukip revolt.
All these factors to a continuing Brexit ‘hardcore’ revolt on the Tory backbenches. If it is significantly more numerous than the Labour switchers, the government still will not succeed next week. Parliament will then surely demand the removal of the no-deal option, and that then narrows the real choice of the Prime Minister’s agreement, or remaining in the European Union. Only the public will be able to resolve it one way or another. As an unapologetic Remainer I still give my side a sporting chance that we won’t be leaving after all.
Vince Cable is leader of the Liberal Democrats and MP for Twickenham