Will this be the week that spells the end of Brexit? That’s what Theresa May wants MPs to believe, at any rate. She will claim that she now thinks that MPs will react to the defeat of her deal by voting to stop Brexit rather than taking the UK out of the European Union without a deal.
But does she? One of the neglected aspects of May’s political style is that she is happy to say things that are untrue. Although there is a widespread belief that this is part of the average politician’s toolkit, most politicians rarely lie and when they do, do so awkwardly.
But May does it frequently and with great ease. From the man who couldn’t be deported because he had a cat, through to her frequent use of the term “implementation period” (there is nothing to implement and there may well have to be an implementation period after the transition period), the Prime Minister is a politician who is happy to say things that are demonstrably untrue.
She’s at it again in the pre-released extracts of her speech, looking back to the very close result of the 18 September 1997 referendum on whether or not to have a devolved legislature in Wales, saying “that result was accepted by both sides and the popular legitimacy of that institution has never seriously been questioned”.
Just one small problem, Prime Minister, I hate to mention it, but: the parliamentary Conservative Party, including you, voted against the creation of the Welsh Assembly after the referendum. May voted to reject it at the second reading, and then against the motion to give it its third reading in December 1997. She did the same with the creation of the Scottish Parliament and that referendum wasn’t even a close-run thing. To cap it off, she – and the rest of the Conservative Party, of which she was then a senior member – went into the 2005 general election promising to hold another referendum on whether or not to keep the Welsh Assembly.
I suppose if you’re feeling charitable, she might believe that the pre-Cameron Conservatives were such a ludicrous outfit that nothing that party did from 1997 to 6 December 2005 can be considered “serious”. It’s certainly arguable, but it feels more likely that it is just another example of May saying whatever it is she thinks she needs to in order to get her way.
So what it tells us is that May believes that there are no votes to be won ahead of Tuesday appealing to MPs who fear a no-deal exit, as they are either already voting for the Withdrawal Agreement or cannot vote for the Withdrawal Agreement for party political reasons. That assessment is wholly correct in my view: most Conservative MPs who fear no deal are already voting for her deal and most Labour MPs who fear no deal think they have to vote against May’s deal on Tuesday to show willing. The only votes left to be won are from pro-Brexit MPs.
The problem – as far as escaping a no deal Brexit goes – is that the belief that May is less than truthful is widely shared at Westminster. It’s one reason why some Conservative MPs ignored her pledge not to fight another election to vote against her in their confidence vote and part of the reason why many pro-Brexit MPs don’t trust her assurances about the deal. They feel that she misled them about the December 2017 agreement, is still trying to pull the wool over their eyes as far as the transition goes and that they can’t trust her.
But it’s also a problem for everyone, regardless of how they feel about the question of Remain vs Leave. Parliament’s Brexit factions are about to enter a high-stakes game of bluff and double-bluff: and that none of those factions believes they can trust the Prime Minister only adds to the possibility that we might yet have a no deal Brexit by mistake.