Would Conservative Brexiteers really vote against Theresa May’s deal with the EU? Steve Baker, the former DexEU minister and shop steward to the European Research Group, says so.
Yesterday he warned that up to 80 MPs were ready to vote down the Prime Minister’s plans and predicted a “catastrophic” Tory split if she did not change course.
Baker is a man of political certainties and led the parliamentary guerrilla war that ended in David Cameron offering rebels an in-out referendum on EU membership. But are his warnings a bluff?
Some think so. In a provocative tweet yesterday, Nick Macpherson, the former permanent secretary to the Treasury, argued that Conservative MPs would vote for any deal or statement on the nature of the UK-EU relationship that May brings before the Commons.
Despite huffing and puffing, Tory MPs will support any deal the PM secures. The priority is to get UK out of EU. Voting against is too risky. Once A50 is done, they can impose their will: leadership change, Canada “FTA” etc. Meanwhile, 2-3 months of tedium.
— Nick Macpherson (@nickmacpherson2) September 10, 2018
Unsurprisingly, those leading the push to replace Chequers and its Norway-style vision with a Canada-style free trade agreement disagree. Baker does not rule out a scenario that bears a vague resemblance to what Macpherson describes, saying that the Withdrawal Agreement “might just squeak through if the promised future relationship is FTA-based with conditions on the money” and the Irish backstop is watered down.
There is little sign of either of those two things happening. All signs point to Eurosceptics like Baker voting against. He told me this morning: “I am gravely concerned that the government is heading for a political miscalculation of the most historic proportions. We are trying to head it off in the national interest and our mutual interests with the EU.”
There is another problem with Macpherson’s analysis. “Tory MPs” do not vote en bloc, and that goes for the ERG too. Even if Baker is convinced and takes several dozen of his colleagues with him, then there remains the chance that the hardest hardliners could still vote the deal down.
While Baker was the most doctrinaire Leaver in government during his time as a minister, he is outflanked on the Tory backbenches by several MPs for whom no Brexit will be hard enough. Even if only ten or 15 per cent of the 80 he predicts vote against May’s deal, the government will be in deep trouble.