It’s the outcome that few ministers want, that Labour MPs loathe and that business fears most. But a ‘managed no deal’ Brexit now looms large for the government and the public.
Whether Theresa May wins or loses the confidence vote, a growing number of senior Tory figures are becoming resigned to the prospect of the UK quitting the European Union without any Brussels agreement on March 29, 2019.
If the PM were to lose tonight’s vote, or decided to resign if the result was close, the chances of a ‘no deal’ outcome will rise dramatically.
That’s because key leadership contenders are all likely to back the idea of what is now being labelled by some an “orderly exit”.
Home Secretary Sajid Javid and Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt have both argued privately in Cabinet for such a solution.
Boris Johnson and Dominic Raab have gone even further, publicly arguing that leaving on World Trade Organisation terms would not be the disaster many claim.
Other MPs who are determinedly against ‘no deal’ may well stand in the leadership race. But even if they somehow manage to get selected as one of the final two candidates on the ballot, the assumption is that the party rank and file will pick a leader who backs a ‘hard Brexit’ rather than a ‘soft’ one.
With the EU unlikely to budge on key issues that Brexiteers and the DUP find unacceptable – the ‘backstop’ idea of the UK being indefinitely linked to the EU – even Brussels and Ireland are now urgently focusing on ‘no deal’ preparations.
Even if May were to win the confidence vote, a hard core of backbench Eurosceptics dislike the PM’s plans so much that they are determined to carry on with their fight.
The Tories’ wafer-thin Commons majority means that it takes only a handful of MPs to cause havoc. And that havoc can be wreaked not just on any ‘meaningful vote’ on the Brexit deal, but crucially also on the legislation needed to enact it.
Last month, HuffPost UK learned of Brexiteer plans for ‘guerrilla warfare’, which would lay amendment after amendment to disrupt and derail the Withdrawal Agreement Bill that the government needs to pass in order to get the plan formally ratified.
One source within the European Research Group (ERG) says: “People would need to stock up on books about Algeria or Vietnam, as the wars there would set the template.”
The rearguard action will rely on Labour support. And although many Labour MPs are determined to avoid ‘no deal’, Jeremy Corbyn is unlikely to want to do anything to help the PM get her bill through parliament.
“It’s always, and ever more pressingly so, in Corbyn’s tactical interest to support us,” a Brexiteer said.
A majority of ministers are dead set against ‘no deal’ and are convinced that May herself has changed her view significantly in the past year.
“Eighteen months ago, she was sanguine about it and even thought it was an option,” one Cabinet minister confides.
“That’s why we had all that stuff about ‘no deal is better than a bad deal’. But since then she’s read all the papers on it, unlike Boris and DD [David Davis], and she’s seen how awful it would be.”
Many MPs still believe that they have a Commons majority against ‘no deal’. But rebels believe that a PM can and should ignore resolutions passed by MPs because they are not legally binding.
The only legal certainty is that the EU Withdrawal Act 2018 and the Article 50 process. One senior No.10 source said: “Legally speaking, no deal is certainly the default option.”
The PM is also acutely aware that the rebels could ruin her legislation. One minister suggests that the “nuclear option” - of revoking the Article 50 exit process - may have to be deployed.
“If the Brexiteers really do carry on blocking a deal, then we may have to revoke it, to stop the clock on Brexit,” they said. Such an inflammatory move would lead to a possible split in the party that neither side wants.
Some ministers believe that the only way ‘no deal’ can now be stopped is if Labour MPs formally split from Corbyn.
“And it would surely be the perfect reason to start a new, third party,” one said. “Anti-Semitism wasn’t strong enough, but just imagine how difficult it would be for Momentum to object to a new party that said its main aim was to stop a ‘no deal’ Brexit.”
Brexiteers heartily dislike the suggestion that falling back on to WTO terms and tariffs would mean the UK “crashing out of the EU”. They also say that ‘no deal’ is the wrong way to describe what would inevitably be a slimmed-down agreement to keep planes in the sky and lorries crossing at Dover.
Some Cabinet ministers are pushing the idea of an ‘orderly exit’, with the UK offering Brussels just £20bn rather than the £39bn currently planned. That would literally be the quid-pro-quo as the EU refuses a trade deal on advantageous terms for Britain.
They’ve been cheered that the Treasury is set to release large chunks of a £3bn ‘no deal preparation’ fund in coming days, a reaction to the continued failure to get parliamentary approval for May’s plan.
One senior Cabinet minister, who is ‘not afraid’ of ‘no deal’, pointed out that the longer the UK failed to get an agreement, the harder it would be to find any deal at all. “The European Parliament needs to approve it, don’t forget. And with their elections coming up this year, they may not like what we want anyway.”
For many Tories, what was once unthinkable is now seen as the last way of delivering on the 2016 referendum result. And the fact is that while the PM has hardened against ‘no deal’, the rebels don’t look like giving up anytime soon.