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22 May 2019updated 23 Jun 2021 6:28am

Holding an election is the Conservatives’ worst nightmare. Yet it looks unavoidable

By Stephen Bush

Theresa May’s latest big offer to MPs has gone down about as poorly as her last; partly, of course, because it is the exact same offer.

Even by the standards of a Prime Minister who has an incredible willingness to say things that are untrue, her description of this as a “new deal” breaks new ground. Not one dot or comma of the withdrawal agreement has changed. Her offer of a second referendum is a power that MPs already have – any MP can bring forward an amendment to the Withdrawal Agreement Bill saying that the deal must be subject to a referendum.

One of May’s problems is that when she offers concessions, the MPs she is trying to woo don’t believe her but the MPs she is trying to retain do. Labour MPs aren’t going to back the deal and she will lose the support of some Conservative MPs who held their noses and backed it last time. If, that is, the withdrawal agreement bill is ever brought back to parliament – and there’s a growing possibility that it might not be.

But May’s bigger problem is that a large number of pro-Brexit MPs refuse to vote for a deal that takes the United Kingdom out of the common fisheries policy, the common agricultural policy and the single market on the grounds that it isn’t a real Brexit, and the Labour MPs who want this deal to pass aren’t willing to take political damage with their members to do so.

May is the author of that political situation – it was her decision to use Brexit as a political wedge issue rather than binding Labour into it, it was her maladroit handling of the election campaign that lost the Conservatives their parliamentary majority.

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The argument you hear a lot in Tory circles is that the advantage a new leader will have is that there will be an outbreak of unity and a desire to put the party together, that whoever emerges from the contest will be greeted as liberators, allowing the party to pass the deal. The problem is that you tend to hear that argument only from Conservative MPs who have already made the leap and backed the deal at one stage or another.

Which is why the Conservative nightmare – of going to the country again with Brexit still unresolved – looks hard to avoid, whether the next election is next week, next month or in 2022.