"It’s like a middle-aged swingers party waiting for the arrival of Scarlett Johansson,” chirped Michael Gove at yesterday’s first post-Christmas Cabinet meeting. “Or Pierce Brosnan…” trilled Amber Rudd. Goodness knows what the Goves and Rudds had been up to over Christmas. They were of course referring to the prospect of Brussels pulling a rabbit out of the backstop in order to save the Prime Minister’s skin. Again.
Downing Street is briefing that if the “meaningful vote” doesn’t pass the first time on Tuesday evening, then it will be brought back to the House of Commons as often as is needed to pass it. This really is the politics of knocking your head against a brick wall and not caring how many bruises you get in the process. When nothing has changed, don’t expect the vote result to change. We haven’t seen any rebels recanting on their intention to vote the deal down.
The key for Theresa May is to win over the DUP. If she gets their support for the deal, many Tory rebels would swap sides and support it. The only way the Prime Minister can set that ball rolling is to win meaningful concessions from the EU. That certainly won’t happen before the debate next Tuesday.
Mrs May is then counting on Brussels being so shocked by the size of her defeat that it will prompt them to realise that unless they change their stance, Britain will have no alternative but to leave with a clean-break no deal. She’s gambling with very high stakes and the odds stacked against her. She must now acknowledge (even if only to herself) that it was a major tactical error not to go ahead with the original vote in mid-December.
On Monday, more than 200 MPs wrote a letter to the Prime Minister — 22 of them Conservatives — saying they would not allow a no-deal Brexit to go ahead. Yesterday, in a positively Trumpian move, Yvette Cooper scored a victory with her amendment to the Finance Bill, with the support of 20 Conservatives, designed to bring the Government to a standstill in the event of a no-deal Brexit.
These MPs are suffering from Brexit derangement syndrome. They can’t bring themselves to acknowledge that they all voted for the possibility of no- deal when they voted to support the triggering of Article 50. If a deal could not be reached, and endorsed by Parliament, then there was always only one alternative — no deal.
I don’t pretend leaving without a deal is in any way perfect. There would be many problems for various parts of the economy to cope with in the first year, but a “managed no deal” is far from the hell that some of the vested interests are warning of. Peter Lilley’s paper, published this week by Global Britain and Labour Leave, on the consequences of leaving on World Trade Organisation rules, provides evidence that Britain could indeed thrive in this scenario. It demolishes many of the myths and canards that are constantly promulgated by those whose real agenda is to scupper Brexit altogether.
Make no mistake, there is now a real possibility that they may get their way. The real aim of the leaders of the so- called People’s Vote movement is to thwart any kind of Brexit. But they know time is running out. Once we get to March 29, it’s game over for them.
Leave-supporting Conservative MPs could shoot themselves in the foot and scupper Brexit altogether. Gove and Liam Fox have always argued that getting to March 29 is the most important thing to achieve, and they believe that once we’re out, everything else can then be sorted out. They fear that if we don’t formally leave on March 29, we might never do so. I agree.
Like many Tory MPs I’ve argued in the past that I’d rather remain in the EU than support the Prime Minister’s deal, but I suspect quite a few MPs are now re-evaluating that stance. And the more Remain-supporting Labour and Tory MPs try to thwart Brexit altogether, the more likely the rebels will be to change their votes. If I were advising Downing Street, I’d be ramping up this argument for all it was worth.
What we are about to experience is a tug-of-war between Remainery Cabinet ministers who won’t countenance no deal, such as Amber Rudd, Greg Clark and David Gauke, and those who believe we have to leave the EU on March 29 or face the consequences.
Equally, the tensions between Parliament and the Government will continue to rise. The Government only governs with consent of Parliament but if a government cannot govern it has to stand aside and call a general election. At the moment, the parliamentary tail is wagging the Government dog and that cannot go on for ever.
No one voted for things to turn out like this. Like 17.4 million others, when I voted to leave the EU I imagined the process would be handled competently, by people who had some semblance of an idea of their desired outcome.
We put our trust in a Prime Minister who we thought was capable of getting the job done. Instead, she put her trust in unelected advisers who decided that appeasement and concession after concession should form the centrepiece of Brexit policy.
Some argue that things would have inevitably turned out this way whoever was in charge, as the EU always held the whip hand. We’ll never know, but we’re now in the worst of all positions, and there’s one person you have to blame for that.
Yes, she’s stoic, yes she’s resilient, yes she keeps buggering on, and in some ways you have to admire her for that — but in the end you have to question where it’s got us as a country.