Downing Street knows the best way to get the Brexit it wants is to ask the country a different question

The government has a parliamentary majority to Leave without a delay, but not for its narrow vision of life after Brexit.

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It’s not unusual for governments to throw tantrums when defeated, but quite another for them to do so after a victory. But in the week since Boris Johnson brokered a revised Brexit deal, No 10 has had a snit almost daily. The first strop was thrown in response to Oliver Letwin’s amendment to the motion brought on 19 October, which welcomed the deal but held the government to its legal obligation to seek an extension to the Brexit process beyond 31 October, in order to prevent a no-deal Brexit whether by accident or through deliberate conspiracy.

Downing Street’s reaction to the amendment’s passage was to take its ball and go home: it refused to whip the vote on the final motion and tried to bring back the unamended motion on 21 October. When Speaker John Bercow prevented the government from putting the same question back to parliament a second time – as anyone who has read Erskine May, the bible of parliamentary protocol, knew he had to do – No 10 had its second tantrum.

By the time that the vote on the deal itself was under way, the government’s strops were arriving on the hour, every hour. Downing Street sources briefed that they would pull the vote if MPs voted against the government’s preferred timetable, or to change the direction of the looming trade negotiations, and by the time of the vote they were only half a step away from declaring that the deletion of a single comma from the Withdrawal Agreement Bill would be sufficient grounds to cancel the vote and seek a general election as soon as the Brexit date had been extended.

Lost in all the noise is that a narrow majority exists in parliament to confirm the government’s exit deal. It’s true that the majority runs through MPs who have differing views about what the final trade agreement between the EU and the UK should be, but as far as this stage of the process is concerned there is a small majority to exit on the terms negotiated within Johnson’s withdrawal agreement. The cause of contention is the accompanying political declaration. The difference between the two is best understood in that the withdrawal agreement is the legal document formalising a divorce, arranging how to manage and dispose of shared assets and divide custody of the children. Meanwhile, the political declaration is the warm words exchanged by the couple in which both participants agree to keep things civil and to work together to make sure that the divorce is as non-disruptive for the rest of the family as possible.

The government has repeatedly insisted that it is of the utmost importance that the UK leaves the EU without delay. It now has a parliamentary majority to do that, but  lacks a majority for its narrow vision of life after Brexit. The agreement’s passage in the Commons has been complicated by the attempt to bind the two together, by using the legislation necessary to complete the UK’s exit from the EU to codify the next stage of the process as well.

Why is the government so keen to declare defeat when victory is in its grasp? The answer lies not in anything going on in Brussels or Westminster, but in the phone calls being made by Conservative campaign headquarters. Prospective parliamentary candidates have been told whether they are to be treated as a target seat and lavished with extra resources from the centre, or if they are being left to fight a paper campaign. Some have been instructed to restrict their appearances in their own constituencies to a few token set-piece events and to spend their time working in more winnable seats.

No 10 wants to be able to fight an election in which the political question is whether or not Brexit should happen, rather than one in which duelling versions of Brexit are on offer. It has spent the past week frantically poisoning as many wells as it can in a bid to capitalise on its opinion poll rating and the pattern in the Conservatives’ private polling, which suggests that it can use a Brexit election to win the big parliamentary majority for a more radical Brexit.

The problem the Tories are trying to get around is that the Brexit envisaged by Johnson could be almost laboratory-designed to shed popular support. The biggest losers from Britain leaving the EU’s customs union are Brexit’s biggest backers – small towns, the remaining centres of manufacturing – while those with the most to gain from the bonanza of free trade deals envisaged by Johnson – graduates and the country’s great cities – are the ones most opposed to leaving the EU.

The destruction of much of British manufacturing is not an accident. As with the decision to hive Northern Ireland into its own regulatory and customs zone, it is the explicit and known cost of the meaningful trade policy craved by the Conservative Party’s committed Brexiteers. Leaving the customs union means the end of the frictionless trade enjoyed by British manufacturers – in return for trade deals whose benefits will flow to people who work in other industries, in other parts of the country. Just as this parliament will consent to leave the EU but not on those terms, there is an electoral coalition to leave – but not if the terms preferred by the Conservative Party are made explicit.

To make matters worse from a Tory perspective, the cost is upfront and the reward, if it comes, will not be immediate. The backdrop of the next few years will be closures and relocations by businesses dependent on our membership of the customs union – effects that will be felt long before the first trade agreement is signed, sealed and delivered. And that’s the real reason for Downing Street’s desperate search for any pretext to fight the election it is preparing for: because it knows that the safest way to get and secure the Brexit it wants is to ask the country a different question.

Stephen Bush is political editor of the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

This article appears in the 23 October 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The broken state