May chose the lesser of two humiliations – but whispers in Brussels tell me her future looks bleak
‘There’ll be no sweeteners, only clarifications,’ one EU diplomat told me today
Theresa May came out fighting in her Commons statement confirming that she will delay tomorrow’s crunch vote on her Brexit deal. She laid into the alternatives – “no deal”, a Canada or Norway-style agreement and another referendum.
Significantly, she stopped short of saying what many Tory MPs wanted to hear – that she will reopen negotiations on the legally binding withdrawal agreement. Instead, she promised to seek “further assurances” from the EU that the UK could not be stuck indefinitely in the controversial backstop to prevent a hard Irish border.
May did not spell out what she wants. It might be an addendum beefing up the EU and UK’s commitment to use their “best endeavours” to conclude a trade deal by December 2020 so the backstop would not be needed at the end of the transitional period. The problem: no one thinks a trade deal can be completed by then. She also promised to strengthen parliament’s role in exiting the backstop. The problem: this could put the UK in breach of its treaty with the EU.
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Although her retreat makes May look weak and reminds us she is in office not power, it was the lesser of two humiliations for her. She was warned by Tory whips that she faced a crushing defeat by more than 100 votes. If all the Tory MPs who had criticised her deal had voted against it, she would have lost by around 200. A three-figure defeat would not only have killed her deal, it might well have ended her premiership this week.
Her reprieve may be short lived. The EU will not reopen the withdrawal agreement. It will tweak the non-binding political declaration, but that won’t move the markets at Westminster. “There’ll be no sweeteners, only clarifications,” one EU diplomat told me today. Whispers in Brussels suggest that May wasn’t clear in what she wanted in her last-minute pleas. Which doesn’t fill you with confidence that she will get much.
The delay might only postpone the inevitable. And not for long. Her move could be overtaken by events. Many Tories will see her climbdown as the last straw, confirmation that her authority is lost, and cannot now be recovered.
The Eurosceptics might finally secure the 48 Tory MPs they need to trigger a vote of no confidence in May as their party leader. Their humiliating failure last month might now work to their advantage. May would almost certainly have won then. With several cabinet ministers on leadership manoeuvres, she could easily lose now. (For good measure, she might also face an opposition Commons motion of no confidence in her government.)
Some hardline Brexiteers in the European Research Group, chaired by Jacob Rees-Mogg, hope the delay takes the UK a step towards a no-deal exit in March – the default position unless parliament passes a law to change the departure date in the EU (Withdrawal) Act earlier this year.
I think they will be disappointed. There is no majority in the Commons for no deal. Dominic Grieve’s amendment passed last week, will pave the way for MPs to have a say if no UK-EU agreement is approved, and they will surely prevent the UK crashing out.
There is more bad news for the Eurosceptics. Two developments today make a Final Say referendum more likely. May’s announcement is a further sign that parliament is deadlocked. It is against her deal and no deal. It might opt for Norway plus. But there is no majority for that yet, as the Labour leadership is not convinced. So the only way to end the impasse might be to refer the question back to the people.
The Commons could decide it had tried but failed to implement the 2016 referendum decision, and that people should consider the new facts that had come to light since. A parliamentary impasse might stop Brexiteers falsely accusing Remainers of claiming the public was “too dim” to make the right decision in 2016, as Michael Gove put it on Radio 4’s Today programme this morning.
The second development is the European Court of Justice’s ruling today that the UK can unilaterally revoke its decision to leave the EU. This will not affect the debate on May's deal. If MPs vote for a referendum, the most likely course would be to extend the Article 50 process beyond March. To revoke it would pre-judge the referendum.
But crucially, the ECJ ruled that the UK could remain on its existing membership terms. This would help Remainers defuse some of the ammunition that would be fired at them in a referendum: the UK would lose the rebate on its EU contributions won by Margaret Thatcher, and would have to join the euro and “no borders” Schengen agreement.
Although May made clear in the Commons that she remains vehemently opposed to a referendum, it is significant that Downing Street aides and some cabinet ministers are now discussing the idea. A Final Say referendum is gaining momentum, and at exactly the right moment.
The Independent has launched its #FinalSay campaign to demand that voters are given a voice on the final Brexit deal.
Sign our petition here