Everything’s coming up Theresa May? There are signs of movement among Conservative Brexiteers, who fear that the choice is no longer between a bad deal and no deal, but between a bad deal and no Brexit. Matthew Elliott, the architect of Vote Leave, has written a column in the Sunday Times urging pro-Brexit MPs to vote for an imperfect deal, get Brexit over the line and worry about the fine points later. Today, a Policy Exchange report by David Trimble and Paul Bew argues that the changes secured to the backstop are substantial and weighty.
The reality is that even if May steps down after the withdrawal agreement is ratified, to allow a fresh negotiating team to take over – which, as both the i and BuzzFeed report, is the increasingly vocal demand of some Tory MPs – her successor will still face the same tricky parliamentary arithmetic and with it the same limitations on what can and can’t be negotiated with the EU.
As far as the “substantial changes” to the backstop go, the reality is they are pretty thin gruel. What really matters is whether Conservative MPs buy Elliott’s argument that voting down the Brexit deal now means no Brexit at all.
Elsewhere, the government hopes that a combination of assurances from British ministers, lobbying from businesses in Northern Ireland and fear that Brexit won’t happen at all will get the DUP back on side, which would unlock a large bloc of Conservative rebels in addition to the ten votes of the DUP.
But May has two problems. The first is that not every Conservative Brexiteer is going to come back on side: Boris Johnson has signalled as much in his Telegraph column, and Priti Patel and Dominic Raab are both believed to be in the same boat. The second problem is that May’s hopes of winning a parliamentary majority aren’t only under threat from Tory Leavers: the out-and-out supporters of a second referendum on the government benches aren’t numerous enough to secure a fresh vote but they are numerous enough to mean that even if May gets the support of the DUP and every Conservative Brexiteer (the latter of which is not going to happen) then May is going to need some Labour votes to get her over the line.
Far from successfully wooing Labour MPs, May’s maladroit political handling has made it harder for Labour backbenchers to vote for the deal. Labour’s so-called Inbetweeners – those who voted to Remain, but whose constituency voted to Leave – have always been worried about two audiences: Brexit supporters in their constituencies, and Remain supporters in their local parties. May’s wooing of Labour MPs has been conducted in a way almost laboratory-designed to push them away from her deal. One MP, who in February told me they were certain to vote for the deal described it as “impossible” for them or likeminded colleagues to back the deal, because May’s approach to wooing Labour MPs had so enraged their members.
Small wonder that the argument that is gaining ground at the top of government is that the best approach is to wait until after the EU summit on 21 March to bring the withdrawal agreement back to the House, with the hope that the fear of a prolonged transition with heavy caveats will scare up enough MPs from across the House to ratify the accord.