Theresa May will travel to Brussels on Saturday for last minute talks as she seeks to add new language to the political declaration that accompanies the withdrawal agreement in a bid to win over dissident Conservative MPs.
But the reality is that it is much ado about nothing. Lost in all the talk of the EU-UK deal, free trade agreements and all that is that May’s deal isn’t a trade deal: it’s a divorce deal. As I explain in this week’s New Statesman, the EU and the UK have agreed that they’ll sell the family home and have joint custody of the kids: we still have very little idea what the flat the British government will end up moving into looks like.
As for the political declaration that May is trying to rewrite: well, the political declaration is a lot like shaking hands and promising to maintain mature and cordial relationships after you finalise a divorce: just because it takes place at the same time as a legal accord, doesn’t mean that it is a legal accord.
That doesn’t mean that the withdrawal agreement doesn’t have implications for the final EU-UK relationship after Brexit: if you agree joint custody of the kids, you implicitly agree that one of you isn’t going to up sticks and move to Australia. (Or in this case, Canada: as Tom McTague explains well, you cannot have a Canada-style relationship with the EU without having additional barriers between the EU and the UK.)
And whatever May inserts into the political declaration, that essential reality will not change. It actually makes the problem worse because May has three different parliamentary problems. Her first problem is that she is losing the votes of Brexiteers who want a distant relationship with the EU, whether they be free traders on the Conservative benches or Labour Leavers who want shot of the European Court. Her second problem is that she is losing the votes of Conservative MPs who want another referendum. And her third problem is that she is not attracting enough pro-European Labour MPs to replace either of those other two groups. Any language designed to win over Brexiteers is going to only deepen her problems with pro-Europeans on both sides of the House.
Patrick has been keeping a tally of Conservative and DUP MPs who have explicitly ruled out voting for the withdrawal agreement – and by our count, May is 65 votes adrift of safety. Over at BuzzFeed, Alex Wickham has got in on the act with a list of his own – he uses the less conservative methodology of including every Tory MP to sign up to Stand Up For Brexit, which puts May in an even worse position: 84 votes away from passing a deal.
But whether you favour a soft or a hard count, the reality is that without a big shift from either the Labour leadership or Labour backbenchers, the United Kingdom is leaving without a deal – and rewriting the political declaration to win over Conservative MPs whose preferred Brexit cannot be achieved makes that no-deal exit more likely.