Defending her Brexit plans in the Commons this afternoon, Theresa May was met by universal opposition. Not one of her own MPs endorsed Chequers in the wake of her statement, and most worryingly for the prime minister, the opposition extends well beyond the two groups causing her most trouble: the ERG and DUP.
The willingness of pro-EU Tories to attack the government’s plans was particularly striking. Justine Greening said, if realised, that Chequers and its common rulebook would bind future generations to Brussels regulations over which they’d have no say, leading to a “unique loss of sovereignty”. Arguing that May’s plan bore no resemblance to what the electorate voted for, Dominic Grieve similarly said: “In no circumstances will I be able to back the government unless this is put to the people again.”
It is a salutary reminder that opposition to a no-deal isn’t the same as support for any deal. It has also delighted Tory Eurosceptics, who take it as confirmation that Chequers is dead. But their common cause with the pro-EU mutineers starts and ends with the mutual recognition that May’s proposals aren’t very good. The latter group are if anything more averse to the Canada-style free trade deal that the ERG favour than they are Chequers. There is no course May or any Tory leader can take without alienating a chunk of their parliamentary party.
There is another unlikely alliance that should worry the government too. It isn’t often that the DUP and Ruth Davidson are on the same page but the Scottish Tory leader was approvingly quoted by Nigel Dodds today, who demanded that the prime minister confirm that no part of the United Kingdom would be “hived off” into the customs union.
That May could only instead confirm that the EU was still only offering a backstop that applied to Northern Ireland increases the chances of more meaningful cooperation between the 23 MPs who take their lead from Dodds and Davidson. Scottish Tory MPs are implacably opposed to any differential arrangements for Northern Ireland on the grounds that it would give Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP legitimate grounds to argue for a similar deal for Scotland.
They believe that Davidson and David Mundell, the Scottish secretary, would be right to make good on threats to resign if May signed up to any backstop deal that did not cover the whole UK. “The DUP and Scottish Tories make a not insignificant voting bloc, if rather odd bedfellows,” says one of their number. Both Mundell and David Lidington have been making this case within cabinet on their behalf, and May’s rhetoric implies she has been listening.
Addressing reporters after her statement, her spokesman said that the prime minister would not sign up to anything that undermined the constitutional integrity of the UK. The implication was clear: that rules out a Northern Ireland-only backstop. But without one, there cannot be a deal with the EU.