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10 January 2019

Could Tory MPs back the Withdrawal Agreement after all?

Former minister George Freeman has become the first rebel to publicly U-turn on the Brexit deal.

By Patrick Maguire

Could there be hope for Theresa May after all? Former Tory minister George Freeman has become the first Conservative MP to have publicly U-turned on the Brexit deal.

Having declared against the Withdrawal Agreement last month, Freeman, a Remainer, told the Commons this afternoon that he would vote for it “with a heavy heart” in order to avert a no-deal scenario. When it falls, he will campaign for a Norway-style deal on a cross-party basis.

Though Freeman is just one Conservative MP of more than 100 to have opposed the deal and has not shifted the dial in any meaningful way by coming in from the cold, his decision to do so nonetheless suggests that Downing Street can at least hope for a less painful defeat than that which they were destined for last month.

Freeman, an occasional rebel on Brexit votes, had cited the threat to the integrity of the United Kingdom posed by the backstop and the economic damage the Withdrawal Agreement would do more generally as justification for his opposition in December. Closer proximity to exit day – and with it an increasingly likely no-deal scenario – has forced him to reassess those political priorities for the sake of some semblance of economic continuity.

In doing so, he has accepted Theresa May’s case for the prosecution – that the fundamental choice before MPs is between her deal and no deal, and that the only sure-fire way to avert the latter is to support the former. Others will follow his lead before choosing which division lobby to walk through next Tuesday. In any case, there won’t be enough Freemans – MPs whose opposition to the deal wasn’t born of deep and longstanding Euroscepticism – to deliver a victory for the government. But Downing Street’s hope will be that his logic is pervasive enough to change the shape of the defeat, particularly among those MPs who have pledged to vote in any way they can to stop a no-deal scenario.

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Opinion among Tory and DUP MPs is divided as to just what sort of loss would be most useful to the Prime Minister, however. Some on the government benches believe a relatively slim margin of under 50 would advertise to Brussels that the Withdrawal Agreement and with it an orderly Brexit could be saved by a concession – or convince Labour MPs that supporting the deal is worth the political expense at the second time of asking. Others, including the DUP, believe that only a severe defeat close to or exceeding 100 can emphasise that binning the backstop is a political imperative.

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Just how many Conservative MPs follow Freeman’s lead will determine how straightforward the Prime Minister’s task is once the deal falls at the first time of asking on Tuesday – and with the country’s chances of avoiding no deal.