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How Theresa May’s Brexit deal could pass after all

With the threat of an early election on the horizon, some Labour MPs may back the Prime Minister to avoid being blamed for an Article 50 extension.

By Stephen Bush

And there were 14: George Eustice has become the fourteenth minister to resign the government over Brexit.

Eustice, a former Ukip candidate turned long-standing Defra minister, will continue to back the withdrawal agreement in parliament and has mooted an EEA-type arrangement as a way to bring both Remainers and Leavers together, but has walked out of the government over the looming possibility that the Article 50 process will be extended.

But he may get what he wants after all. This time yesterday I wrote that the problem for May’s deal is that the pool of Conservative rebels is too large. Even if Geoffrey Cox can provide the legal assurances the DUP and most of the ERG are looking for, there are at least 20 Tory irreconcilables who won’t vote for it and not enough Labour MPs to make up the gap.

My reading was that while there is a large number of Labour MPs who want a deal, the possibility of an extension makes it hard for them to justify voting for the Prime Minister’s on 12 March.

But several unexpected Labour MPs are now of the view that they need to move definitively towards backing a deal in order to avoid the risk of an election in the extension period. In their view, whether it comes with a government whip or not, an extension of Article 50 would be seen as a Labour project. Adding to the problem, now that Jeremy Corbyn has been forced to move to a second referendum position, the way is set for May to fight the election she wanted to fight in 2017: one in which Labour can be cast as blocking Brexit and she can use the Brexit question to realign politics.

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Others are worried too that the real legislative achievements they think are on the table thanks to the talks between May and the trades unions and the work of MPs like Lisa Nandy and Caroline Flint will be wiped out if they don’t act now.

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It’s still very tight but there is clearly significant movement among Labour MPs. Enough to close the gap on 12 March? It depends on what concrete policy announcements May makes between now and then. But the possibility that she will get close enough to passing her deal to make the way out of the Brexit deadlock at lot clearer than it seemed yesterday has certainly risen.