Unfortunately, I've stopped writing these weekly previews. I just find it difficult to balance my full-time job and writing on a Monday morning. However, I felt I had to write a preview here this week as my last update, back in November in the run up to the initial but delayed Meaningful Vote, laid out the options available to Theresa May. They are still as relevant today as they were then.
It was already clear that she would lose any vote based on her deal. I was already trying to look ahead to where she could pivot to and I suggested she had to move towards a softer Brexit that would help procure her Labour votes;
“It will be almost impossible to convince the DUP MPs to vote for it with the current plan. She will therefore probably try and squeeze the less fervent Brexiteer and Remainer MPs who will worry about losing the support of their local committees and the Conservative Party.
I think a better approach would be to go for the softest possible Brexit that has a Single Market and Customs Union element. It could get the DUP back onside as it may be possible to avoid a backstop as well as pulling in support from a number of Labour MPs and potentially even the wider Labour Party.”
I made one major miscalculation in the above analysis. I incorrectly assumed the Conservative membership and local organizations would row in behind May and put pressure on her own MPs to back her. However, analysis from ConservativeHome and YouGov, as well as Tweets and editorials from Conservative MPs.
This wasn’t the case when the vote finally came and there were over 100 rebel MPs. The majority of these could be labelled Brexiteers, though she also had a few “soft Brexit” or “No Brexit” rebels.
The big question now is does Theresa May believe she can survive a No Deal Brexit? The answer to this has a major impact on where I believe the next week and few months will go.
In the immediate aftermath of her crushing defeat last week, Theresa My indicated that she would open cross party talks to find the best way forward. However, once she refused Jeremy Corbyn’s pre-requisite of taking No Deal off the table, they were bound to fail. While members of her team have met with a few influential Labour MPs like Yvette Cooper and Hilary Benn, Corbyn’s blanket ban on meeting with here has mostly succeeded.
As of Monday morning, the latest reports indicate there May still believes she can get some minor concessions from Europe and then use the clock to chip away at her own Conservative rebels.
There have been several ministers privately brief journalists that they would quit in the event of a No Deal Brexit outcome but as of today, only Business Minister Richard Harrington has stated clearly, he would quit if this were to unfold. Furthermore, a Sky poll over the weekend suggested that No Deal Brexit is the public’s favoured option of 8 possible choices. Theresa May must still ultimately believe that her MPs won’t break away or vote against her in any further future Vote of No Confidence. The roaring support she got in the No Confidence vote last week actually suggests this is true for a few more weeks at the very least.
I believe there are still ways to get a Brexit deal through parliament, though I am less confident that this can happen before March 29th. Nick Boles’ Norway Option could be the most likely option, as it would be very difficult for Labour MPs to vote against the party whip IF Jeremy Corbyn supported it (of the 71 MPs publicly calling for a People’s Vote, I think up to half could be convinced).
The SNP MPs could also get behind it to inflict damage on the government while still publicly calling for a second independence referendum as it isn’t quite as good (in its view) as EU membership.
If May wants to survive a while longer and avoid a No Deal Brexit, she needs to be seen to be listening to her membership by trying to push harder on more concessions and hope that, “against her will”, power is taken away from her and that parliament force through a soft Brexit deal that obliterates at least one of her previous red lines.
I just don’t know if this is possible at this late juncture in proceedings. It is also a very precarious plan that requires numerous players to act exactly as she has assumed they will.
However, she could still surprise us all this afternoon and declare she is moving towards a Customs Union and is ruling out a No Deal Brexit. It would enrage her Brexiteer MPs and possibly destroy the confidence and supply arrangement with the DUP. It would totally blindside Labour and leave their frontbench with very little option but to support it, potentially alienating up to two thirds of their voters.
However, executing such a plan would require humility, flexibility and diplomacy, as well as a lot of personal charisma to get the public and her fellow MPs back on her side. Unfortunately for Theresa May, I do not believe she possesses any of the four qualities listed above.
Therefore, I now believe a No Deal Brexit has become the most likely outcome unless Jeremy Corbyn publicly backs the Norway Plus option and really sells it to his MPs. Even then, it is not clear he can quell enough of his People’s Vote MPs.
Finally, I have never observed a political scenario where so many actors believe they are working towards a goal, only to be impeding the chances of that outcome actually happening. With that in mind, and for now at least, no one truly knows where Britain will be on March 30th…