Parliament’s recess is almost over, but Brexit is no closer. What’s next?

20 Tory MPs – more than enough to wipe out the government’s majority – have turned against Chequers.


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Today’s newspapers make for particularly uncomfortable reading in Downing Street: the Times splashes on the fact that 20 Conservative MPs – well in excess of the number needed to wipe out the government's parliamentary majority – have publicly turned against Theresa May's Chequers. The Telegraph devotes much of its frontpage to Boris Johnson, who has reiterated his opposition to the Brexit deal in his column today. (You know the drill: cultural allusion, Irish border is actually very simple when you look at it, pre-emptive surrender, etc.) Also restating his opposition to Chequers is Michel Barnier, dubbing the plan illegal, unworkable and fatal to the European project. Chequers can’t even command the support of all of the Conservative Party's pro-Europeans, either, as the proposed level of market access for British firms is still very low.

All that's really changed is that the Commission's approach to Chequers has become more overtly hostile. Ultimately, the detail of May's proposals is besides the point: what matters is that she has signalled that, of the two possible post-Brexit futures (outside the regulatory orbit but with a reduced level of market access or inside the regulatory orbit) she has opted to stay within the regulatory orbit of the European Union.

And when May unveiled those proposals, European member states and the Commission had a choice: they could make polite noises and gradually amend Chequers to something that bore very little resemblance to the proposals – such as they were – in May's document but that she could present as a victory, or they could point out that, no, nothing like Chequers is going to happen. But as the EU27 knows full well that the numbers aren't there for Chequers, what's the point in pretending?

The question is, is there any deal that can command a majority in parliament? As it stands, barring some kind of drastic political shift, there isn’t one. One chink of light may be that the politics is becoming less fraught on the Labour side: YouGov/MRP analysis (the same constituency model that predicted the 2017 result) for Best for Britain and Hope not Hate shows a growing number of constituencies swinging to remain and that Labour Leavers place an increasingly low premium on the referendum result. Will that be enough to reassure nervous Labour MPs in Leave majority seats and unlock a cross-party majority for staying in the EEA? Perhaps, but it still requires Conservative pro-Europeans to be willing to precipitate the end of their own careers and possibly of their party as a political force.

Which leaves the United Kingdom in the same perilous position that it was in when parliament rose for the summer: there aren't enough votes for May's deal, there aren't enough votes for a looser arangement, there aren't the votes for a Norway-style deal, which leaves the most likely outcomes another election or exit without a deal.

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.

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