It is very rare – particularly at the moment – that the House of Commons makes for must-watch TV. The weekly theatre of Prime Minister’s Questions has become, thanks to the pedestrian performances of both the PM and Leader of the Opposition, almost unwatchably dull. And the bulk of the work of MPs is not found in high oration and public denunciation, but in the slow and steady process of probing and amending legislation. Not exactly prime time stuff.
And so it was a shock to many a politico’s system to find themselves, yesterday, glued to the Parliament channel. In one of the most brutalising scenes to play out in the chamber, Theresa May sat for almost three hours as members from every party and from every faction within those parties dumped on her deal.
For Brexiteers, this agreement represented a betrayal of sovereignty – binding the UK into a transition and a backstop from which it cannot unilaterally escape. For Remainers, the deal is the worst of all worlds – leaving the UK without many of the benefits of EU membership whilst also surrendering our say over the rules that will continue to govern us. Unionists fear a separatist ratchet has been created, giving the SNP a point of natural justice (if Ulster can remain in the Customs Union and Single Market, why can’t we?) on which to peg their grievances. And for Labour MPs, this is a deal that meets none of their ‘six tests’ and which is already so unpopular even amongst Leave-voting constituents that any political incentive to support it looks minuscule when set against the rage they would inspire amongst their membership.
Each of these complaints was put to her, repeatedly. Some members were outright and personally rude. Some were gracious and sorrowful in their condemnation. But, aside from a handful of Tory in-betweeners, there was almost no support for the Prime Minister or for the arrangement over which she and her officials have slaved for months. It looks dead on arrival.
May has every reason to feel quite sore about this state of affairs. The deal that she has negotiated far exceeds the expectations of pessimistic Remainers and provides the UK with a managed path out of most EU institutions. It ends Free Movement. It gives a level of certainty over the short to medium terms for business. It is very probably the best deal that could be achieved by a Prime Minister with as many red lines and as few supporters as Theresa May. But it is not good enough to win a positive majority because it neither answers fully the ‘sovereignty-at-all-costs’ demands to her Right, nor the calls for ‘exact-same-benefits’ to her Left. It is a compromise. And British politics is not, for the moment at least, a compromising place.
What happens now? Well the ERG is busy rustling up letters of discontent, hoping to force May from office and use the remaining months before Brexit preparing for a glorious, WTO future. They may well succeed in securing a vote but even if they do, on account of having gathered the necessary 48 signatures, it is not clear that they have the numbers to end her rule. It is instructive that it is taking them longer than they anticipated to get the letters in. If May wins a no-confidence vote she wins immunity for a year (not unlike an I’m A Celebrity contestant who has successfully consumed the most kangaroo testes). The ERG might well live to regret forcing the issue.
As things stand, Mrs May is not really the Prime Minister that anyone wants but she is the only person with a plan for making Brexit work. She hopes that she will make it through to the EU summit on the 25th, that a few further symbolic concessions can be achieved and that then – staring down the barrel of a ‘no deal’ gun – moderates in all parties will gather to her flag. But whilst one can see the commonsensical logic of that strategy, it is very hard to make the numbers add up. There are only so many Nicky Morgans in the world, let alone in the House. And so the probabilities of Armageddon or Salvation (and vice versa, depending on one’s perspective) – either a total and hard exit from the EU with no deal or a referendum to stop the thing in its tracks – grow. Both are filled with risk and fraught with danger. But, on the plus side, either will make for cracking Telly.