Tactically Theresa May is being astute. But then she has always run Brexit as a party strategy. Strategically in the national interest, she’s risking a disaster.
By continuing to face MPs with a binary choice as late as mid January – My Deal or No Deal – she’s squeezing the time available for any Plan Bs to emerge but she’s raised her immediate chances of staying in office. This of course assumes the divided cabinet will play along and the ministers arguing for indicative votes on alternatives will accept her rebuff.
Remember the choices are: No Deal with a hard border; remaining in the EU; or a plan B – Norway plus or Canada plus, any version of which requires the backstop.
As she has furiously rejected a second referendum, it’s her Deal or No Deal, as far as she’s concerned.
The DUP can afford to vote against the withdrawal in the meaningful vote, believing that her alternative of a walk away No Deal involves no backstop. They would deny it means a hard border but only the minority Brexiteers agree with them.
Labour’s cack- handed motion of no confidence in the prime minister personally was dismissed by the government with contempt as an empty gesture. It will not attract the DUP as the backstop would have gone under the zero sum choice if her deal is defeated. This view seemed to be confirmed by Nigel Dodds’ demeanour spotted by the Spectator’s observer.
Eagle-eyed James was in the press gallery and noticed something else that looked small at the time but that could yet prove to be significant: Nigel Dodds didn’t shake his head at the Prime Minister. James argues that the DUP leader seemed less hostile in his questioning than he has been in recent weeks, and also kept his head entirely still when May told him that she was seeking legal and political reassurances on the backstop. Previously he has shaken his head to show how little he trusts her, and this suggests that there is a slim chance that the Prime Minister might be able to get enough on the backstop to satisfy the DUP.
“Get enough on the backstop” other than with No Deal? This is very problematical. I’ve been scouting opinion among experts. Guess what? They’re divided.
One says the NI specific backstop – “ temporary” or lingering or the default – is constitutionally proper if Parliament were to ratify either the May Deal or a Plan B. This is because it would be passed by the sovereign Parliament, even though the Republic would become the spokesstate for Northern Ireland on all EU matters without the permission of the Assembly and Westminster. Constitutionally ok just about, although politically – shall we say – difficult.
Another view is that backstop is in breach of the consent principle of the GFA and a border poll could not be held for as long as it survived ( how about that one Nigel?)
A third argument questions why the backstop is needed at all as the GFA carries enough guarantees against a hard border. But this argument had not been used by those who might otherwise have been its champions, namely the Irish government.
The DUP may have a good argument but how can it be advanced without creating a hard border? That’s the abiding conundrum. Yet I can see why she persists – the withdrawal agreement meets many of the demands for a soft Brexit that could command a Commons majority – if only they could find a UK exit strategy from the bloody backstop.
So its seems only the cabinet can force a change of options or a change of prime minister, or both.
In the New Year the choices look like polarising on main party lines, No Deal Conservatives versus Labour for Plan B and /or a second referendum, albeit with substantial dissent in both parties. The test of the opinion that both sides may come to agree is a general election to refine choices, combined with the necessary extension of Article 50.
Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London