The real battle of Brexit is about to begin

Oliver Letwin

Rather than the hoped for negotiated peace, Brexit skirmishing is shaping up into a formal struggle between Theresa May’s crumbling minority government and the inchoate majority of soft Brexiteers in the House of Commons. Battle is finally joined between those who want to retain a close relationship with the EU and the committed minority of MPs who long for a clean break. It has  polarised to a contest between No Deal and No Brexit in which the default remains No Deal. Thus the urgency behind the efforts to find a cross party agreement.  We wait to see who will crack first.  Rather like Spain in the 1930s, the essential conflict is complicated by civil wars inside each main party and a Parliament versus the People clash of ideals between representative and direct democracy and a devolved UK and the sovereignty of Parliament.   The freebooting partisans on the government side the ERG are a law unto themselves and up to now  have proved more than a match for the government regulars. The enemy soft Brexiteers have left it very late to organise, but they may have the numbers.

To switch historical analogy, like Charles 1,  Theresa May may lose her head at least metaphorically as she holds out for the supremacy of party that is as inappropriate as the divine right of kings.

The battle began yesterday afternoon at the moment she spurned the offer of leading the search for Brexit alternatives and declared herself unbound by its conclusions, holding out as ever for her binary choice of My Deal or No Deal.

She will have gained some encouragement from suffering her latest defeat by a mere 27 votes, compared with 149 a fortnight ago and the record 230 in January. Out of this she manages to spot a trend in her favour.

The agenda partly supports her.  It must be remembered that the essence of the withdrawal agreement is non-negotiable.  Alternatives like Norway, Canada, a customs union with a confirmatory referendum leave it intact for the time being. The fundamental choices are No Deal and No Brexit by revoking Article 50. A multiple choice referendum favoured by remainers is in a different category. It is a gamble they could lose.

Mrs May will be encouraged by ERG leader Jacob Rees Mogg’s wobbles in a ConservativeHome podcast.

Whether we are there yet is another matter, but I have always thought that no deal is better than Mrs May’s deal, but Mrs May’s deal is better than not leaving at all. Brexit may now need to be viewed as “a process rather than an event”, he said. It was a “process of unravelling and diverging which will take time”.

“Alternative prime minister” Oliver Letwin and his co-conspirators have their work cut out to decide the topics for the indicative votes and the method for holding them  to allow   voting to begin early next week.  To reduce the chances of a failure to agree on a way ahead, a proposal for two ballots by alternative vote is suggested by UCL Constitution Unit director Meg Russell.

The first would ask MPs to rank preferences between:

  • Moving straight to Brexit without a referendum
  • Accepting a Brexit deal, but on condition that it is put to the people for approval in a referendum
  • Ending the Brexit process and revoking Article 50

These options are mutually exclusive and exhaustive, and in practice all are clearly achievable.


If MPs do not vote to revoke Article 50 (which they seem fairly unlikely to support), a second ballot might then ask them to rank different options for a Brexit deal. In practice, since the EU27 have ruled out renegotiating the Withdrawal Agreement, the key changes on offer lie at the level of the political declaration – which is where most disagreement exists, and which is far more likely to be re-negotiable. A second ballot might hence ask MPs to rank preferences between:


  • The Prime Minister’s current deal, including the backstop and proposed ‘customs arrangements
  • The current Withdrawal Agreement, including the backstop, with significantly looser customs arrangements (the ‘Canada’ model) which in practice would make the backstop more likely to be brought into effect
  • The current Withdrawal Agreement alongside significantly closer arrangements (the ‘Norway’ model or ‘Common Market 2.0’) which would in practice make use of the backstop unnecessary
  • A ‘no deal’ Brexit.


Arguably the last of these options could be omitted, having already been rejected by the Commons in two previous votes.

These complexities need careful thinking through, rather than leaving to chance through uncoordinated motions or amendments. One way of achieving this could be agreement of a cross-party motion setting out the suite of options, supported by all of the key players – with no amendments to be accepted.

Letwin’s own preference seems to rely less on voting and more on making multiple choices  and then thrashing out an agreement round the negotiating table. This draws on his experience as a lead Conservative negotiator for the coalition with the Lib Dems in 2010, as Paul Waugh of HuffPost noted in Letwin’s Commons speech yesterday.

Civil servants had “worked the situation through in awesome detail and had convinced themselves that it was absolutely impossible to form a coalition”. But “we sat down, and four days later there was a coalition agreement… [because] politicians were trying to find out how to accommodate the essential requirements of the other side”.

Under  the deadline pressure of 11 April the campaign of attrition must be drawing to an end. Would enough of Mrs May’s  lieutenants switch sides and join Letwin and his cross party army into a soft Brexit?

How will the Brexiteers fight back?  For the moment Theresa May is watching and waiting. How will she take to the field? Will she stay in character and reject a soft Brexit  that risks fatally splitting her forces?  Will she risk all and put her deal to the test for a third time?  Between today and a week hence she may finally trade her departure as PM for ERG support for her deal or dare Labour to fight a general election. This would be the slash and burn option.  But what would be the cause and who would be the generals?


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