Downing Street has bigger problems over the Brexit deal than losing the PR war

Commentators and loyal Conservative MPs are worried Theresa May isn’t at the races as far as the argument for the deal goes.

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There are a lot of Conservative MPs who are worried tonight that Downing Street is losing the “air war” over its deal with the European Union very badly – and many journalists agree.

It’s true that anyone watching 24-hour television has had a near-uninterrupted line of critical voices about Theresa May’s accord with the EU27. But the bigger problem is not that they didn’t have, say, James Cleverly, going to bat to explain why May’s deal is a good one for rolling news.

It’s that the number of people on air who have already said things on live TV or radio that make it hard to see how they could possibly vote for May’s deal is already above the number that May would need to lose to be in danger. The combined Conservative-DUP majority is 14, which means she needs to lose seven MPs to be in danger. The DUP has come out against the deal so she is already trailing by three. Add Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg, who have both gone on air to denounce the deal and she is down by five.

The government is not just past the point where its majority on paper is in danger, but where it is outside the area where any realistic Labour rebellion can save it. There’s a tendency to underrate the chances that Conservative MPs will rebel because so many other confrontations with Conservative rebels, whether they be pro-Europeans or Brexiteers, have ended with the rebels voting with the government. But crucially, in each of those cases, the government made a concession to buy off those rebels. In some cases, sure, those concessions turned out to be worth less than would-be-rebels thought they were. But in all of those cases the government didn’t have to put those concessions into a binding treaty that could be examined by MPs before they vote. In this case, they do.

And that’s why while it is a problem for the government that they are losing the air war, it is a tiny one compared to the much bigger problem that they do not as it stands have a path to passing their Brexit deal through the House of Commons and it is tricky to see where they are going to get one.

Stephen Bush is political editor of the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.