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18 January 2019

In her Brexit stand-off with Jeremy Corbyn, Theresa May is winning the PR war but losing her MPs’ support

The Prime Minister’s public standing is stronger, but privately problems are brewing within the Conservative Party. 

By Stephen Bush

The longer one looks at the talks between Theresa May and opposition MPs, the harder it becomes to claim they are negotiations in any real sense of the word. Downing Street has told reporters that the government will not support a customs union, membership of the single market, extending Article 50 or legislative measures to prevent no deal. 

Supporters of a second vote have been told that it would take 52 weeks to secure another referendum – a full 20 weeks longer than the number suggested by UCL’s Constitution Unit, 21 weeks longer than that by the IfG, and longer than it took the government of Tony Blair to enact the north-east Devolution Referendum, during which time the government also found the bandwith to invade Iraq and introduce far-reaching social policy measures.

Negotiations of this kind usually involve an ear being sent in the post and a request for a suitcase full of unmarked notes. These aren’t discussions about a way forward – they’re about leveraging the threat of the cliff-edge to force MPs who want a softer Brexit, or no Brexit at all, to vote for May’s deal in order to avert a non-negotiated exit. Without legislation being brought to prevent no deal, there can be no meaningful talks

Small wonder that the majority of Labour MPs are supportive of Jeremy Corbyn’s “no negotiations without taking no deal off the table first” stance.

But the longer you look at the overall row, the harder it becomes to claim that the politics aren’t deeply toxic for the Labour Party in general and Jeremy Corbyn in particular. It is in the newsbreaks between songs on music radio that ordinary voters are won and lost, and Labour’s side of the story doesn’t translate well in that format. “Jeremy Corbyn has refused to join negotiations with Theresa May until the threat of no deal is off the table” sounds particularly bad because people tend to like the idea of cross-party co-operation in the abstract, and most don’t really know what “no deal” means. No wonder that according to YouGov, a majority of voters, including Remain voters, and a plurality of Labour voters, think that Corbyn should enter into talks without preconditions.

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But public opinion, while important as far as the Tory-Labour battle is concerned, is at the moment a secondary factor as far as the resolution of the Brexit crisis goes. What matters, as I said yesterday, is that both leaders are carrying a major liability as far as their ability to control their parliamentary party goes: MPs who fear no deal. Jeremy Corbyn is more exposed because the vast majority of his MPs fear no deal but through a combination of irritation with what Labour MPs see as May’s stubbornness and deceit and good work by the party whips, that majority is holding – for now at least. They are nowhere close to folding and voting for whatever is on the table just to stop no deal.

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Conservative MPs who actively fear no deal are a smaller contingent than within Labour but at the moment they look much less inclined to hold the line. The Evening Standard’s Joe Murphy reveals that up to 20 ministers could quit if they aren’t allowed to vote for legislation to take no deal off the table, while the Telegraph reveals that five ministers have led a delegation to tell May that she must allow a free vote or face a walk-out. Theresa May is certainly having the better of the PR battle as far as the negotiations go – but that doesn’t mean that she is winning as far as the legislative struggle for control is concerned.