Theresa May tries to buy MPs with counterfeit money

The Prime Minister's latest Brexit speech was a mixture of false concessions and guarantees that she doesn't have the power to enforce.

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Theresa May has made a big, generous offer on Brexit to Parliament’s various warring tribes: provided, that is, that you don’t look at the detail too hard, or indeed, at all.

The central thrust of the speech is that she is putting forward a new deal for MPs to vote on when the withdrawal agreement returns to Parliament. There’s a small clue that this isn’t true: there hasn’t been a European summit since the last time Parliament had to vote on the deal. This is the same deal, but the Prime Minister has changed the font on one or two parts and opted to emphasise others.

She will seek changes to the political declaration, but the political declaration is not legally binding. It has no more force than when a divorcing couple shake hands and promise to keep things civil – what matters is the legal accord that formalises the end of the marriage and arranges joint custody and the division of assets.

May also chucked in a if-you-don’t-look-at-it-closely-then-it-looks-like-a-promise that MPs will be given an opportunity to vote for another referendum if they pass the withdrawal agreement bill at second reading. There is nothing to stop any MP attaching an amendment to the withdrawal agreement bill to introduce a stipulation that the deal be subject to a second referendum anyway: this is akin to your boss telling you that if you take a pay cut you will have the opportunity to take the bus to work: it’s conceding a power you already had in order to get you to do something you don’t want to do.

But the promise, such as it is, is at the wrong time – MPs who want to stop Brexit will know that they will have another opportunity to get a second referendum and MPs who want to push ahead with Brexit have a ready-made excuse not to vote for it.

The problem though, is that even if May had given a better speech, ultimately, there is no viable path to pass the withdrawal agreement while she remains as leader. Even if she were offering concrete guarantees, that her political career is in its terminal phase means that any concessions she makes are valueless. She is in the worst of all possible worlds: the MPs she is seeking to buy don't believe she can follow through, and the MPs who oppose her concessions fear that she might. 

But even when May steps down, the problem will remain unchanged. There is a rump of Conservative MPs who for reasons of ideology and expediency believe that the withdrawal agreement – the hardest available negotiated Brexit – is not a proper Brexit, and won’t vote for it. It will never be in the Labour party’s interests to vote for a Brexit as hard as the one on offer and the minority of Labour MPs who believe it is in their interests in their own seats have consistently quailed when given the option to rebel and back the deal.

Unless any of that changes, this remains a parliament that will veto a negotiated Brexit, will veto stopping Brexit and will veto a non-negotiated exit. And while May’s maladroit political style is part of why that state of affairs came about, merely replacing her at the top of the Tory party won’t change that fact overnight.

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.