Remember when ‘no deal was better than a bad deal’? Or, briefly, when ‘my deal is better than no deal’? Well, now, it’s ‘my deal is better than another year of talking about all this with the very strong possibility that we then just give up on the whole thing anyway’. And who knows, maybe this latest line will work where all the others have failed.
Thanks to this week’s votes we know an awful lot about what Parliament is against. They are against ‘no deal’ in any circumstances. They are against the ‘Malthouse Compromise’. They are against May’s deal and against a referendum. What are Parliament for? Well, finally last night we have a sort of half answer – they are for a delay, for now. By voting to give the Government instructions to request an extension (a short one if the deal somehow passes next week, a long one if not) Parliament has accepted that it cannot achieve a Brexit before the ‘deadline’ of 29th March. But beyond that, still no sign of an actual plan with an actual majority behind it.
Anyone with experience of trying to placate a child who insists that they are ‘bored’ will be familiar with this dilemma. Parliament is not happy. But Parliament has no idea what would make it happy, and even if it did have an idea it’s not going to tell anyone. In their heart of hearts, most MPs want the deal to pass: most Labour MPs, most ordinary jobbing Tories, even a few of the Lib Dems and the SNP. They know that the deal passing is the most straightforward way out of the mess that they are in. They know that the Withdrawal Agreement (the legally binding bit) isn’t that bad and that the backstop isn’t the end of the world (or even the Union), and they know that there is plenty of scope to renegotiate the Political Declaration (the non-binding bit) later on. You can see in Jeremy Corbyn’s eyes, each time she loses, a flicker of frustration and disappointment to match the Prime Minister’s. He, like most of his colleagues, wants this done and out the way.
So why don’t they pass it? Why doesn’t Corbyn whip to vote for the deal or – easier still – to abstain so that she can scrape through? Because politics isn’t commerce. The Withdrawal Agreement is a rational compromise from which everyone wins and everyone loses in roughly equal amounts but the optics of any of the hold-out sides surrendering now are terrible. The ERG have blustered and barked so much that without a major change (impossible according to literally anyone who has ever so much as travelled through Brussels on a Eurostar) they cannot vote for the deal without looking utterly pathetic. Labour have railed against a ‘Tory Brexit’ that is coming for their jobs and their rights and can’t now turn around to their constituents and their members to say that maybe living in Singapore wouldn’t be so bad after all. The DUP might be persuaded to change their minds, but it is difficult for them to do so in public, having peddled furiously the line that the backstop was a plot against the Union.
Next week there will be another ‘meaningful vote’. The heart tells any close observer that surely, this time, MPs will vote for the thing and put this sorry saga behind them. But the head tells any analyst that she will fail again – the numbers stacking, as they do, so firmly against her. At that point, as instructed by the House yesterday, Theresa May will return to Brussels and will ask for their terms. And, honestly, even the best poker-player in the world would be entering that gig with vanishingly few cards to play. Experience tells us that, for all her many attributes, our Prime Minister is unlikely to prove a card sharp. A billion a month? Maybe. European elections? Conceivably. It will be in the EU’s interests to make Britain pay a very visible price for any extension – and that comes before the possibility (small but real) that a populist government in Italy or Hungary or Poland might veto our request. We need all 27 to agree.
On the other hand, maybe her deal will pass. A Withdrawal Agreement will be achieved, Britain will Brexit and we can all move on to thinking about something else. It’s possible – again, not likely but certainly possible. The only problem is that then we immediately begin negotiations on the ‘future relationship’. With a new cliff edge formed by the end of the transition. With a backstop looming and a Government with a tiny majority. Oh, and almost certainly a leadership contest within that Government. If you are holding out any hope that passing the deal will mean British politics calms down for a bit and leaves you alone to run your business then we are the bearers of bad news: Brexit won’t be finished by the deal passing, it will have only just begun.