The DUP threaten to pull the plug on May’s careful plan

We may have a timetable up to Hallowe’en but for what?

Apart from taking an Easter break from today to 23 April, MPs were only a little wiser after Theresa May’s long statement.

The talks between the two front benches are “ serious “ but there is no meeting of minds on how to close the narrow gap between a customs arrangement  (Conservative) and full  membership of the customs union (Labour).  There’s slightly better news on process. May and Corbyn confirmed that the talks are concentrating on a process for future proofing  any  political agreement they might just reach against a  new  Brexiteer  prime minister, either by UK law or –  better because harder to reverse – by international treaty..

As the Guardian puts it:

 …. under the plan, the government would hope to persuade the Labour frontbench to allow the bill, known in official circles as the WAB,( withdrawal agreement Bill)  to be used to ratify the Brexit deal and to give legal reassurances on workers’ rights, environmental protections and a “Boris lock” to prevent agreements being unpicked by a future Tory leader, such as Boris Johnson. Some cabinet ministers believe the bill’s progress could act as an indicative votes process – cross-party groups of MPs would be able to amend it to bind the government into elements such as a customs union, which could then potentially gain a parliamentary majority.

So as Mrs May herself  hinted her welter of mostly concrete utterances, does agreement between government and opposition depend on using different language to express the same thing? Only if you don’t look at it too closely and you’re consensus minded.

A customs union prevents free trade with other countries but doesn’t guarantee access to the single market.  A Norway plus requires freedom of movement. Unless you win special concessions denied in advance by President Macron. When you look at the compromises up close, they look distinctly second best to the essential binary choice between the Brexiteer free trade deal which is basically No Deal on WTO terms,  and Remain, put to the people . And it’s that essential binary choice that haunts the entire political establishment and has always bedevilled agreement .

So it is soon time to cut and run for a general election? The interparty talks at least give cover for mutual indecision. Public opinion will be tested in English council elections on 2 May and if no agreement is reached in the meantime, in the bizarrest elections ever, for the European parliament on 23 May.

Brexiteers presently prepared to wound but afraid to strike will await the results nervously before making up their minds over when to try to topple May. If the Conservatives are not embroiled in a leadership election from the end of next month, I guess the agenda will either consist of determined moves towards an inter party agreement or “a  people’s vote.”

“A people’s vote” is a term that fudges the choice between a general election or a second referendum. The Tories under any leader are pretty much united against another referendum.  Corbyn is against it because he is essentially with the pro-Leave minority of his party.

The European election will become the test bed for more than the electoral future. The contest lines up unerringly between Conservatives for Brexit plain and simple versus Labour for Remain with a referendum option. Individual dissenters allowed.  Both main parties will want to stave off threats on  their left and right  flanks  while preserving  the prospects for reaching agreement afterwards. But just as important, the election results will provide the essential guide for a general election line-up and perhaps the very future of the present party system.

The least likely option of No Deal may look near death but has a sting in its tail, courtesy of the DUP who still hanker after a renegotiation of the backstop. Arlene Foster was in Brussels lobbying for it  without obvious success. Nigel Dodds served up an implied threat to Mrs May  to pull the DUP deal with the Conservatives if she extended the parliamentary session to the end of the year. And the significance of that? A new session of parliament typically begins in the autumn with a Queen’s Speech itemising the government’s programme  for the new session. A vote on the Speech amounts  to a vote of  confidence in the government, when the DUP would have the option of toppling the government, assuming the Conservatives were unable to construct a new majority from across the aisle within a fortnight. Deprived of the option of a new Queen’s Speech, the DUP would pull the plug anyway.  To achieve what? A new majority for putting Remain to the people?

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