“No deal is better than a bad deal” was one of Theresa May’s catch phrases. Like “strong and stable government” and “Brexit means Brexit”. And like those earlier catch phrases, it seems to have come to the end of a rather short lifespan.
Yesterday (21 November 2018) the PM told parliament that the alternative to accepting her withdrawal agreement is “no Brexit at all”.
How she thinks that will come about she has not made clear. What is clear is that by accepting the withdrawal agreement she put to her cabinet last week, she has abandoned NDBTBD. Because a worse deal than that is hard to imagine.
Theresa May is no dullard. She is taking this deal to parliament because she thinks she can win. This is how she will do it.
Some Tory Brexiteers are holding off on writing letters to trigger a vote of no confidence in Theresa May as leader until she loses the parliamentary “meaningful vote” on her deal. Some (e.g. Dominic Rabb, James Cleverly) are swayed by personal loyalty to the PM. They are arguing that a change of leader would not change the parliamentary arithmetic, and it is the policy, not the PM that must change. Others are calculating that a vote of no confidence is more likely to be won after the deal has gone down in flames.
Brexiteers are heartened by the fact that it requires primary legislation to delay or cancel the 29 March leaving date under Article 50, and there does not appear to be a parliamentary majority for either of these options. In the absence of primary legislation, or a deal, no deal is unavoidable.
Most are taking the defeat of the deal as given. But that is a high risk strategy. If you add up everyone who has said they will vote against it, it should lose by a good margin. But while TM may not be a towering intellect, she is no dullard. She is taking this deal to parliament because she thinks she can win. This is how she will do it.
TMs statements in the commons yesterday have thrown ambiguity over the question of what happens in the event the deal is rejected. This opens the way for the Conservative whips to assure Leavers in private that the result will be no Brexit, while telling Remainers it will be a cliff-edge No Deal.
The PM will come away from this weekends negotiations in Brussels with baubles and trinkets to hang on the Future Relationship Document, designed to make it more palatable to everyone. But that document is not legally binding. It is literally not worth the paper it is printed on.
At the last minute, she will pull something out of a hat to suggest the UK will in fact be free to leave the backstop of its own accord. That will be painted as a major concession from Brussels, and will be designed to sway all but the most recalcitrant members of the ERG. But the hurdles to doing so will nevertheless ensure that it is very unlikely to happen. Tory leaders have form in whipping their party to support europhile measures against their better judgement, cf. John Major and Maastricht.
Finally, if the parliamentary arithmetic still looks doubtful, a deal will be done to get sufficient Labour votes to win the meaningful vote, perhaps by announcing a free vote.
May’s deal will be passed and then it will be too late. The UK will be stuck in a customs union with the EU for ever, but one in which we have no say over the rules. We will not be Norway, nor Canada, but Turkey. All trussed up in time for Christmas.
The message to conservative Brexiteers must be this: if you want No Deal in preference to May’s Deal you need a Prime Minister with the resolve to go down that route. If you want a SuperCanada free trade deal you need a leader with the guts to repudiate the backstop. Theresa May is not that leader.
This is not about loyalty. It is not about her determination (some would say stubbornness), or pluckiness in the face of adversity. It is about her resolve to deliver the Brexit that 17.4m people voted for, and that she herself promised in the Conservative election manifesto in 2017, in her Lancaster House and Florence speeches, and many times since. Theresa May either can’t or won’t now deliver that Brexit. She has to go, and it has to be now.