Against most expectations, Theresa May has all but abandoned any effort to strike a cross party agreement with the Labour front bench. To concentrate minds, a cliff hanging finale as late as 26 March – three days before Leave day – is now looking likely. You don’t need to get into her head to come to this conclusion. It’s nakedly obvious from her statement and the exchanges in the Commons today. She’s challenging all sides who so decisively turned down her own deal last month and sent her scurrying back to Brussels to try to get the backstop revised and over to Belfast and Dublin to dramatise the attempt. “Back whatever I bring back from Brussels. “If you don’t, it’ll be your fault if there’s No Deal”. To up the pressure on MPs she refuses to extend Article 50, and is asking the EU why the backstop is such a big deal to shift the teeny-ist, weeny-ist bit.
Spectator editor Fraser Nelson moans..
The EU is so agonisingly close to a deal. Just one sentence added to the Withdrawal Agreement as per Parliament’s request – allowing a standard break clause – would be enough. But confusing intransigence with strength, as Barnier seems to be doing, makes no-deal far more likely.
In spite of mounting No Deal.anxiety in the real world outside, there’s a huge element of political shadow boxing about the whole business. In the end – and the end is near- this is bound to act in favour of ratification. After all, the backstop has a customs union in it and it is all but impossible to imagine it being removed without creating a hard border in the long term, permanent settlement. In practical terms therefore is the gap between May and Corbyn as wide as all that? OK, one is permanent, the other ‘temporary.” Why not leave the decider to the final settlement? This argument might appeal to Labour MPs whose priority is to avoid No Deal at all costs. On the Tory side the militant Leavers are kidding themselves if they think they can either shift the border to Timbuktoo with or without the smartest technology, or have a border wherever without some tariffs or regulatory checks. The DUP must be praying they won’t hold the decider votes.
Mrs May’s pitch can be summed up in one phrase: “hold our nerve.”
In this House we often focus on the practical challenges posed by the border in Northern Ireland. But for many people in Northern Ireland, what looms larger is the fear that the seamless border between Ireland and Northern Ireland that helped make the progress which has followed the Belfast Agreement possible might be disrupted.
We must not let that happen and we shall not let that happen. The talks are at a crucial stage. We now all need to hold our nerve to get the changes this House requires and deliver Brexit on time.
For someone supposed to be in negotiations with her Jeremy Corbyn shot down her every position in advance. What is there left to talk about?
No minister serious about protecting jobs in this country would allow a Prime Minister to deliberately run down the clock and play chicken with people’s livelihoods. To stand by and do nothing would be a complete dereliction of duty.
As I received the Prime Minister’s letter yesterday in response to Labour’s Brexit plan it became clearer to me that the Prime Minister is merely engaged in the pretence of working across Parliament to find solutions.
She has not indicated she will move one iota away from her rejected deal or any of her red lines.
The backstop the Prime Minister has pointed out Labour also has concerns. But let’s make no mistake about it – that has never been our major issue with the Prime Minister’s deal. Indeed in order to stop the UK falling into the backstop you need a permanent customs union and a strong single market deal. That is key to maintaining an open border on the island of Ireland. That is key to protecting jobs, industry and living standards in this country
The Prime Minister says there is no need to negotiate a customs union as her deal provides for the benefits of being in one. I’m afraid, Mr Speaker, that is simply not the case
Mr Speaker there is a sensible way forward but the Prime Minister is refusing to listen. Labour’s alternative has been widely welcomed as a way of breaking the impasse. From business to trade unions, EU leaders and even some Conservative members.
But the Prime Minister refuses to listen. Mr Speaker I urge all members across this House to think about the damage the Prime Minister’s strategy is doing the threat to industry and skilled jobs in communities across Britain. Now is not the time to stand idly by, now is the time to stand up and do the right thing: to rule out No Deal and back Labour’s alternative plan.
Nicky Morgan, the Conservative pro-European who made an unholy alliance with the ERG based on the Malthouse Compromise specifically accepted that the demarche to Labour-,a was over.
The tone of Corbyn’s response today suggests May will not get her deal through the Commons with Labour support.
Huffpost’s pol corr Paul Waugh was paying attention when Mrs May took the wind out Dominic Grieve’s sails:
May just announced if there looks like ‘insufficient time” to pass legislation on Brexit she will amend the bill to let her fast track it… Confirmation to me that May plans her meaningful vote on Brexit in March just days before exit day.
Waugh has given a detailed account, graphic quotes included, of the swing back to relying on Conservatives (almost) alone.
Almost exactly two years ago, Theresa May was sitting in her office in Downing Street, baffled by the stance of her pro-Remain rebel Tory MPs. “Dominic Grieve and these people need to calm down,” an exasperated Prime Minister told her colleagues. “I’m not going to do anything crazy. I’m not going to just jump off a cliff.”
But fast forward to today, and there is a growing fear among some MPs that May is now indeed preparing to do “something crazy”, and allow the UK to crash out of the European Union without a Brexit agreement. And with the clock ticking down to the planned exit day of March 29, some of those who know her best have told HuffPost UK that the PM is “thinking the unthinkable” of a no-deal departure.
May’s preferred option is to rescue her withdrawal agreement with the EU, by getting Brussels to agree a new legally binding form of words to assure both the Northern Irish DUP and restless Brexiteers that the UK won’t be tied indefinitely to EU trade rules.
But several Tory Remainers, including trusted go-between Sir Oliver Letwin, have confided to colleagues that since the 230-vote defeat last month, May has entered into an irreversible pact with her Brexiteers.
Chief whip Julian Smith is understood to have counselled her that the danger will not come from pro-EU ministers thinking of quitting in protest.
One source says: “She’s been told – ‘You need to understand prime minister, it’s very simple maths – the ERG [European Research Group] will fuck you, fuck the Conservative party and they will throw themselves over a cliff. Your Remainer colleagues will not’. It’s who’s got the biggest balls.
Today the anti-Brexiteers held their fire. Their day will come not on Valentine’s Day but on 26 and 27 of February when the prime minister reports on her negotiations with the EU. The Sun’s Tom Newton Dunn tweets;
The Remainers blink, May gets two more weeks. Nick Boles and Yvette Cooper reveal they will NOT re-table their amendment this week, but will on Feb 27. Sources close to them say they don’t have the frontbench numbers now, but will do then.
Rachel Sylvester of the Times has an alternative insight to Waugh’s. As the BBC’s Laura Kunnesberg tweets, “their plan then would be to bring back the bill to extend immediately on Feb on 27th with a vote on 28th – they reckon they have 10 ministers including Cabinet who would vote with them this time.”
With the low-level pain of her repeated undeliverable promises on the backstop, Mrs May is trying to inculcate a weary sense of resignation as she runs down the clock. Even the cabinet is suffering from learnt helplessness. “I find it absolutely extraordinary to sit through meetings with cabinet colleagues reading out consequence of no-deal as if it’s all fine,” says one minister. “They’ve adopted the language of ‘hold your nerve’ but we are damaging the economy every day. It’s terrible.”
That could be about to change. MPs are planning another attempt to seize control of the Brexit agenda and this time it may well work. The pro-Europeans in the cabinet are willing to give the prime minister two more weeks to secure a deal but if at that point she has failed to get her withdrawal agreement through, and still refuses to support a Brexit delay to stop the country crashing out of the EU, then they are ready to force her hand by supporting backbench moves to require her to request an extension to Article 50. According to one senior figure, between “ten and twenty” members of the government are prepared to quit to block a no-deal Brexit when the question is next debated in the last week of February. In their minds this is “high noon”, which means the threat is serious.
“We haven’t bottled it until we’ve bottled it,” says one cabinet Remainer. “I don’t think she will go for no-deal but she will have to choose between the two factions of her party. What makes me mad is the idea that she would quite like to delay but doesn’t want to admit it, so wants it done to her in order to keep the ERG on side, and people like me are the sacrificial lambs.”
Another senior minister who is considering resignation says: “There is an unanswerable case that we can’t go into March like this.” Even David Lidington, the prime minister’s de facto deputy, is said to be looking increasingly “queasy” about the prospects of a no-deal Brexit.
If this collective nervous breakdown is ever going to end, the country must overcome the sense of powerlessness about its future. MPs could get the chance to vote on a variety of Brexit options to see whether there is any version that can command a majority. The cross-party group attempting to extend Article 50 hopes to make this happen while its measure is being debated in the Lords. Perhaps consensus can be built around a softer version involving a customs union, even if that infuriates the ERG and splits the Tory party. Voters must also in my view be allowed to take back control with a referendum in which they are empowered to make a decision based on Brexit reality rather than the fantasies of the 2016 campaign. “It’s fallen out of favour but it could happen — we are all looking for an escape hatch, and how else do you resolve this?” one cabinet minister says.
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