Theresa May Survives, But What Do The Latest Tory Shenanigans Mean For Brexit?

May still doesn’t have the numbers to pass her deal in parliament, and she's still the proud owner of a Brexit deal that neither leavers nor remainers seem to like

The Westminster drama is over and done with, so back to the main event. What do the Tory shenanigans mean for Brexit? Do they make the Prime Minister’s job harder or easier? Have they affected the shape - or indeed the likelihood – of the UK’s exit from the EU?

On one level, it’s simply too early to tell. This is partly because of the human element of any political drama. Early signs are that some members of the European Research Group are incandescent with rage. There are mutterings of dirty tricks – of Prime Ministerial allies submitting no confidence letters to ensure the vote took place at the most propitious time for Number 10 – right before a visit to Brussels to seek further concessions. Equally, there is dark talk of some of the Brexit bunch considering voting with the opposition for a no confidence motion.

Time, however, is a great healer, and Christmas time particularly so. We’ll have to wait ’til MPs return in the new year to know for certain how much of this rage has survived the turkey and mince pies. And whether, as so often in the past, the ERG prove to be all talk and no trousers.

If they do, the remarkable fact, as the Prime Minister herself might say, is that nothing has changed. She still doesn’t have the numbers to pass her deal in parliament. She’s still the proud owner of a Brexit deal that neither leavers nor remainers seem to like. And she’s still about to head to Brussels to try and seek ‘reassurances’ that might change those domestic circumstances.

And it is Brussels that holds the key to the next phase of this tortuous process. First, as has been well reported, because the Prime Minister needs something on the Irish backstop. This looks increasingly likely to be modelled on the concessions Copenhagen extracted after the Danish referendum on the Maastricht treaty. In others words, a note agreed by the European Council, deposited with the UN, and hence something the PM can sell as an ‘international treaty’ that offers guarantees (without changing a sentence of the withdrawal agreement).

Yet Brussels can help the PM in another way too. One of her problems is the sheer variety of opposition to her deal at home. One group wants to vote it down because they want no deal. Another because they want no Brexit. These camps will not be persuaded to support any Brexit deal.

But then there are those – both in Mrs May’s own party and amongst the official opposition – whose concerns are grounded in claims that they could negotiate something better. Some say they could secure an agreement without a backstop. Others, that they could get the benefits of the single market without full membership of it.

If the member states really want to help the Prime Minister out, they could shoot these various unicorns down. The European Council could add a section to its conclusions reiterating that, whoever the occupant of 10 Downing Street might be, any withdrawal agreement would include the current backstop, and no trade deal would undermine the integrity of the four freedoms.

This at least would have the merit of helping to move the debate forward, making those proponents of ‘cakeism’ justify their stance. It might lead to slightly more honesty, and to the options confronting parliament becoming starker. In the absence of an alternative deal, the choice would be reduced to this deal, no deal, or no Brexit.

It is at this point that Mrs. May could hope to build some momentum. The no deal and no Brexit fringes could never be won over, but if what passes as the centre ground moves towards the deal rather than either of these options, who knows how many votes she might garner?

And of course, as the 12 days of Christmas tick by, so too does the Brexit clock. As time runs out, minds might focus and, again, the options will start to narrow.

None of which is to suggest that this is in the bag. Far from it. The parliamentary numbers, as so much else, remain as they were before this brief excursus into Tory naval gazing. It may even be that, just as people were discussing before the vote this week was pulled, the Government might be tempted to have two bite of the cherry – lose narrowly in a first vote, then come back with cosmetic changes and try again.

Whatever happens, the Prime Minister has won a victory of sorts that enables her to return to confront her most formidable challenge. You’ve got to admire her stamina. But it’s still too soon to fancy her chances.

Anand Menon is the director of The UK in a Changing Europe


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