No-one likes a know-it-all and ‘told you so’ are three of the least popular words in the English language but, still, the PM can’t say she wasn’t warned. Irreconcilable promises always – always – find you out in the end. Still, though, being caught out in the space of just 24 hours does feel a little like tough luck.
To recap, Number 10 promised Dominic Grieve and his band of rebels that Parliament would be given a meaningful vote – in the event of a ‘no deal’ Brexit – to allow MPs a real say in what would happen next. Number 10 also promised David Davis (and Jacob Rees Mogg’s ERG) that no such guarantee had been given. The Government then negotiated an amendment with Grieve that reflected the promise that had been made to him. But, at the same time, the Government began to realise that Davis and his allies really and truly were not prepared to accept the amendment that they had been solemnly promised did not and would not exist. And so Number 10 published an amendment that they claimed had the agreement of both sides when in fact it had the agreement of neither (but was, on balance, acceptable to the Brexiteers). Somewhat unsurprisingly – given that he is an eminent and respected Queen’s Counsel and former Cabinet Minister – Dominic Grieve did actually read the amendment that the Government published. Equally unsurprisingly – given that it did not do what he had been promised and did not reflect his negotiated compromise – Grieve pronounced the amendment unacceptable.
So what happens now? Well, next week the European Withdrawal Bill returns to the Lords. The Grieve amendment – his original, from before the protracted and pointless negotiations of this week – will certainly be debated in the Upper House. The balance of probabilities is weighted heavily in favour of the Lords passing the amendment – not least because, thanks to Number 10’s behaviour, MPs have not yet had the chance to debate or to vote on the measure. If that happens, the amended Bill will return to the Commons and Mrs May will be back to exactly where she began. Except that this time it is likely the Labour Party will whip their MPs in favour of the amendment and a hard core of Tory rebels will now have no incentive whatsoever to believe the PM’s promises. One step forward, two steps back.
How to deal with Grieve’s legislative Groundhog Day is a matter of some debate in Number 10. Some think that May should surrender, concede the point and move on. That way she can avoid defeat and possibly persuade the rebels to water down the measure somewhat. Others say ‘no surrender’ and demand that Grieve be faced down. Rebellions being by their nature somewhat secretive affairs it is hard to know whether May can take such a risk. But the fact that she worked herself into such a mess in order to avoid a vote this week rather suggests that the maths won’t be on her side in a fortnight’s time. Other, bolder kites are flown – ‘can we pack the Lords in time? Could we suspend the progress of the Bill? Should we, gulp, call an election?’ – but most are dismissed as impractical or frankly mad. Meanwhile legal and constitutional doubts begin to gnaw – on Northern Ireland, on devolved matters, on the promises made to EU citizens. Each may come to nothing. Any could explode at any time.
No-one likes a know-it-all, that’s true. But the thing about know-nothings is that they get found out. Mrs May’s constructive ambiguity has reached the end of the road. Time to face up to those irreconcilable promises.