Sunday 17 March 2019

Third Time Lucky?

Writing an "open letter" in the Sunday Telegraph begging your MPs to back your deal is not a good look. Then again, following the worst and the fourth worst defeat for a government in Westminster history, what are you supposed to do? I might suggest coming to an accommodation with the party opposite to reach a consensus on a much softer Brexit would be a start but we can't well have that. If anything Theresa May's letter to "patriotic MPs" is aimed exclusively at her own benches, doubling down on the double whammy her Brexit deal has already suffered. Nothing has changed, but the choice is back me or no Brexit. Is it working?

Despite the Article 50 vote clearing the Commons last Thursday, May wants to give it one more heave - assuming the Speaker allows her unchanged motion to return. Therefore having the likes of Esther McVey make encouraging noises on Sophy Ridge this Sunday morning helps May with her bean counting. As a Brexiteer but not a dyed-in-wool Moggite, she is representative and typical of a layer of Tories who could be swayed by May's messaging. However, as Philip Hammond observed, the deal won't be coming back unless there is clear movement among the Tories and their sometime ally, the DUP. Probed about whether any more money is going to be awarded Northern Ireland, he tried his shifty best to claim we would have to await the outcome of a review into regional spending. You don't need Louise Mensch's esteemed talent for Kremlinology to interpret this as anything other than the admission that more is on the table should the DUP ride to May's rescue. By May's reckoning, if the DUP are in the bag than enough Tory MPs are going to shift. And then her would-be facilitators on the benches opposite could then move in sufficient numbers.

Then again, there is a then again. Because May is utterly absorbed in bringing her party into line (plus ├ža change), she hasn't paid much attention to what's going on on the opposition benches. As it stands, Labour are going to be whipping on a second referendum amendment on the returning motion. That is, Labour will commit to supporting May getting her deal through the Commons if there is a second public vote on it. This move is not without risk, but is preferable to no deal and, indeed, May's deal. The first problem is getting the amendment to pass. As a few mainstream centrist commentators not beholden to the so-called People's Vote campaign have noted, there is no majority in the House for another try. Well, ordinarily, yes. This one though is a bit different. Presumably all the oppositionist parties save the DUP are going to vote for the amendment, notwithstanding some skulduggery from The Independent Group because it's not "their" amendment. But when it comes to Labour itself, its move is in line with party policy, which makes for a handy dilemma for leave-inclined MPs thinking of breaking the whip. Vote against the amendment and expect aggro come reselection time, vote for it and fear the consequences on polling day. If their numbers can be held down and enough Tories come over ... It's very much a long shot, but even outside chances are still a chance.

In no uncertain terms is May about to whip for Labour's amendment, though it's the surest - and perhaps only - way of getting her deal through. For without it, and though the Tory numbers are moving in her direction it's not likely to be enough. If, however, the amendment did get through then we might have the delicious prospect of May whipping against her own government's motion, which widens the schism in her parliamentary ranks. Or goes for it and, um, widens the schisms in her parliamentary ranks.

If the amendment falls, and with it the fresh attempt at passing the deal, or May pulls it, or Bercow disallows it, all eventualities are stacked with serious political pain for the Conservative Party. No deal would be a catastrophe for the country, and the Tories cannot but be blamed as the authors of the disaster. Though some are bound to try pinning it on Jeremy Corbyn. Somehow get the deal through at the third time of asking, then this divided and dysfunctional mob go into negotiating the future relationship for all this to play out again. Strike a deal with Labour, be it over a softer Brexit or a referendum guarantee, and the Tories are going to simply eat themselves. Or, depending on what kind of extension the EU comes back with, more division and rancour as Brexit is menaced by the growing likelihood of a referendum or Article 50's revocation or the prospect, horror of horrors, of a general election. There are no good choices, a habit of May's we've grown accustomed even when there wasn't a dire national emergency, but the fates are closing in and the Tories are caught on all sides.

They say Europe is the issue that does every Tory leader in eventually. This time it's poised to consume the entire party.

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