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1 February 2019

The mood in Westminster favours a deal. But Theresa May could yet muck it up

The Prime Minister could yet bungle her way to no deal or no Brexit. 

By Stephen Bush

One of the more common myths about politics is that most politicians lie regularly and well. The truth is that most politicians lie infrequently and, when they do, they do it badly. But the idea that most of them are at it all the time protects the few politicians, like Theresa May, who do lie comfortably and frequently.

Jeremy Corbyn is, as far as lying is concerned, a typical politician: when he lies he does so badly and obviously. He is uncomfortable saying things that he does not believe, which is why even when he is convinced of the need to be conciliatory he does so in print – whether in his warm words on the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance in the Guardian, or when it appeared that the Labour leadership might have to back a second referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU.

So when the Labour leader says that a no-deal Brexit must be prevented we should take that, too, at face value. It’s one reason why I think it is more likely than not that, sooner or later, a majority will be found for one type of negotiated Brexit or another. The other is that parliament has consistently voted against a no-deal Brexit, even if it has also consistently voted against any measure to stop or even delay it.

My central assumption is that, as a result, both those factors will coalesce into a majority for something to prevent no deal that doesn’t involve stopping Brexit. I think it’s more likely than not that it will be essentially the deal negotiated by Theresa May, with the only open question whether a majority can be found to soften it significantly.

As most pro-second referendum MPs acknowledge, there is no majority to be found in parliament for another vote as it stands; and most concede that, if 14 Labour backbenchers won’t even vote for an extension with a little under 60 days left, a majority is not going to be found to throw the question back to the people.

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But there’s an important proviso at play: May’s ability to successfully finesse that politically favourable set of circumstances into a majority for her deal.

Can she do that? That’s less clear.  As I wrote this morning, contemplating handing out public funds to seats held by the party’s Inbetweeners – pro-Remain MPs with heavily Leave seats who don’t want to block Brexit and don’t want no deal – is a misread of the political forces at play.

Labour MPs in those seats don’t need a political achievement for their constituents, who largely want Brexit to be “resolved” and don’t want it stopped. They need a political achievement for their members, and the Labour leadership needs a political achievement it can show to the two-thirds of its electoral coalition that voted to remain and the vast majority of Labour party activists who also backed a Remain vote. It’s not clear if May understands that dynamic or how to manage it.

We see that too, with the measures to “cancel” the February parliamentary recess. Parliament will no longer be sitting, but the Conservative chief whip Julian Smith is making provisions for MPs who have caring responsibilities or medical matters to be able to continue on with their plans. So in practice, the government has opted to keep parliament sitting in a way that will annoy MPs at a time they need goodwill and annoy everyone covering it too, but not in a manner that may actually lead to the crisis being resolved.

The important dynamic is that parliament will, in my view, grab whatever the least politically toxic off-the-shelf way to stop no deal is. At the moment that is May’s deal, plus whatever tweaks Labour backbenchers and the leadership secure, whether through direct negotiation or by defeating May on the floor of the House of Commons.

That plays against another referendum because a referendum is not a quick or off-the-shelf way to solve anything – and it could simply mean that the same cliff-edge is endorsed by voters).

But the other off-the-shelf solution to prevent a no-deal Brexit is for Article 50 to be revoked. That requires a parliamentary vote, because the exit date is set in law thanks to the withdrawal act, and the barriers to it happening are formidable. But it is possible that if May bungles the politics – not an unprecedented or impossible event – that revocation becomes the less politically fraught way out.

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