How May’s EEA vow could be her best hope of winning over the Brexiteer ultras

The Prime Minister’s objection to free movement could yet bring her party’s rebels back down to earth.

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No deal approaching? Theresa May has ruled out taking the United Kingdom into the European Economic Area's Efta Pillar in the event that the withdrawal agreement is voted down. May's objection to the EEA is that the United Kingdom would still have the benefits of all four freedoms – which means that free movement, regarded by her as the most important Brexit red line, would continue.

The problem, of course, is that it is hard to see how any other Brexit deal other than I Can't Believe It's Not Norway can pass the House of Commons and as it stands the withdrawal agreement looks destined for certain defeat. Alex Wickham's BuzzFeed list puts the number of named Conservative rebels at 100 – the Guardian's more conservative list is at 94, while Patrick's yet more narrowly restricted tally is at 88.

(What's the difference? We wanted with our list to show that even if you artificially hobbled the tally a bit and even if you didn't include people who while not explicitly declared antis are nailed-on rebels you still end up with a number that makes it impossible for May to pass the withdrawal agreement.)

Remember that the meaningful vote is only the first parliamentary hurdle that has to be overcome, so it's not just about how the government gets past the December vote but how it passes the Withdrawal Agreement Bill into law.

Frankly if the House of Commons’ pro-soft Brexit majority asserts itself to vote for the withdrawal agreement provided that the EEA is mentioned in the declaration about the future relationship then Theresa May's concerns are a secondary issue. But it underlines the one reason why the number of Conservative MPs opposed to May's deal could come back down to earth – if enough Brexiteer ultras realise that the most distant negotiated exit available is the one on offer from Theresa May.

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.