It took around 40 minutes yesterday over breakfast in Brussels for heads of government and state to agree the deal from Britain’s Prime Minister to exit the European Union. Around 600 pages of the Withdrawal Agreement plus 20 pages of the ‘Political Declaration’ have clearly been fully digested – the culmination of over 18 months of negotiation. Now, with all opposition parties in the Commons set to vote against it, including the DUP, and around 91 Conservative MPs ready to scupper it too, getting it through Parliament continues to look impossible.
Then there is ‘Plan B’… The Sunday papers have reported that Cabinet Ministers and EU diplomats are ‘urgently planning’ alternatives to the Brexit agreement struck by the PM, especially with the rump of 91 Tory MPs. They all know the parliamentary arithmetic is very bleak. Adding to the Plan B scenario, it is rumoured that Brexteers in the Cabinet – likely from the Pizza Club – are set to hold ‘secret meetings’ with former minister Nick Boles on a Norway-style deal with the EU.
Adding to an already complex picture at the top of government, it’s also rumoured that there’s another cohort in the Cabinet pushing the PM for a softer Brexit entirely. They are said to include well-known Remainers such as Philip Hammond, David Lidington, Amber Rudd, David Gauke and Greg Clark. As if the waters were not muddy enough already…
The consequences are stark. After the deal is voted down, Parliament will almost certainly not allow a No Deal scenario should it come to that, particularly given it will not back the current offering. The alternatives include going back to the EU for further negotiations via a Plan B (which the EU has insisted is not going to happen, a la Jean-Claude Junker and Donald Tusk, yet it may have to), a UK General Election, another referendum (ruled out by both main parties but not impossible) or a situation in which the UK somehow ends up staying in the EU after all, in either the short or longer-term. The latter is the least likely, given the firm official insistence from Labour and the Conservatives that they will ‘honour the referendum result’. Labour is naturally very keen on a General Election prospect, but in reality this is in the hands of Tory rebels should they oust the PM via a no-confidence vote.
As ever, this is crunch time for May, her inner circle and the Government (patently not the same thing). Since the snap election last year, when has it not been ‘crunch time’ for the PM? To get through this latest struggle it ironically seems that the PM is mounting her own version of ‘Project Fear’ by robustly stating that if MPs don’t vote for this deal then it’s back to square one. Her positive insistence on “Brexit means Brexit”, taking control of our laws/borders/money etc and repeated mantras about “the national interest” has shifted in PR terms, and her messaging has been pointed at the British public via her ‘letter to the nation’ appealing for people to get behind her. The Observer has called this a begging letter and whilst being an uncharitable term, that’s basically what it is. This is obviously a tactic to help heap pressure on her own MPs to get in line and back her via the public. Whether this works depends on how bored the public is on Brexit. Many vox pops on news channels are indicating they are bored stiff by it. The chorus from most of the public feels like: “just get on with it!”
Talking to the people as a strategy also entails a nationwide tour from the PM to sell her plan. There’s also the reputed challenge of a televised debate with Jeremy Corbyn on the issue, although Downing Street has downplayed this. This all looks like a high-risk strategy given everything related to Brexit is high-risk anyway, but arguably the only option in town. With the parliamentary vote set to take place on 10th or 11th December, there isn’t much time for the PM to sell the deal. Big set piece efforts seem to be all she’s got left.
So, it may be back to square one after all.