Is discretion the better part of valour? Some in the cabinet certainly think so, and are urging Theresa May to bring a halt to the meaningful vote rather than go down to crushing defeat on Tuesday.
The Prime Minister didn’t completely rule that out this morning on the Today programme but the problem for anyone hoping to get out of the meaningful vote now is that the government, can’t, at this stage, easily do that unilaterally. If anything, it increases the possibility for humiliation for Downing Street as they could be heavily defeated twice – once in trying to avoid a heavy defeat and once in the heavy defeat itself. Another idea being floated to take the sting out of the defeat is to simply concede the vote by turning it into a free vote. That might at least avoid further red faces on the day itself: at least one minister is planning to stay on the frontbench but abstain on the day, reasoning that May won’t be able to sack anyone for failing to back a deal that has been heavily rejected by MPs.
Up until now, May has been able to buy off rebels with a rhetorical concession here or an outright falsehood there. The notion of a “parliamentary lock” on whether the backstop is ever triggered – floated by May this morning as well – is the latest in that particular line. The reality, which has implications beyond the backstop but also when anyone talks of parliament “ruling out” no deal is that MPs aren’t just negotiating with the Prime Minister. Any accord at Westminster has to be acceptable to the EU27, particularly in this instance to the Irish government.
The problem is that you can’t buy people off when the matter at hand isn’t a question of negotiating strategy but a legally binding withdrawal agreement, written in black and white. So what’s next? The DUP has reiterated that if the deal does not pass, they will stick by the government in a confidence vote: so that means that the prospects of an election once again recede into the distance, unless Conservative Remainers start to believe that the only way to prevent a no-deal Brexit is to bring the whole House down. But there is no negotiated deal that won’t include a backstop of some kind, which is unacceptable to the DUP.
As for a second referendum – Sam Gyimah’s resignation means that it is, just about, possible to see how enough Conservative MPs might vote for another vote to cancel out Labour rebels, though that is still a very, very big ask. But that still leaves the question of what it would take for any Conservative Prime Minister – and don’t forget, the executive controls the legislative timetable – to facilitate the passage of a bill that would destroy their career and very possibly their party. (And it’s not at all clear that their party would let them.) So what’s left to avert a no-deal exit?
Perversely, however large the defeat next Tuesday, the answer may in the end turn out to still be the withdrawal agreement negotiated by Theresa May.