Brexit diehards may soon discover May’s deal is only option

London Letter: Political convulsion begins to play out as decision time looms

UK Prime Minister Theresa May got in a fiery exchange with the leader of the opposition, Jeremy Corbyn, when confronted on the lack of change on her Brexit deal. Video: Parliament TV

After last month's European Council meeting in Brussels, some EU leaders and senior officials complained that Theresa May was asking them to resolve her domestic political difficulties. Some, including Germany's Angela Merkel and European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker, were more willing to help than others, such as Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte and European Council president Donald Tusk.

All agreed, however, that there was little purpose in delivering one concession after another without any evidence that they would be sufficient to win a Commons majority for a Brexit deal. The political convulsion at Westminster, they concluded, must be resolved at Westminster before further EU assurances about the backstop could be effective.

That convulsion began to play out this week in remarkable scenes on the floor of the House of Commons, culminating in Wednesday’s vote to allow MPs to take control of the Brexit process if May’s deal is rejected next week.

After months during which the fronts on both sides of the Commons chamber seemed frozen, traditionally loyal Conservative MPs voted against the government to block a no-deal Brexit. And some Labour MPs suggested that they could support the prime minister's deal if it is modified to allow for a permanent customs union with the EU and includes guarantees on labour and environmental standards.


Until now May has sought to win a majority for her Brexit deal drawn almost exclusively from Conservative and DUP MPs. Last month she concluded that the DUP’s support was the key to unlocking the votes of Conservative Brexiteers.

This week her government published a 13-page policy paper that promised to ensure that, if the backstop comes into force, regulations of goods would remain the same in Great Britain and Northern Ireland. And the Northern Ireland Assembly would be consulted before any new EU regulations would be applied to Northern Ireland, although it would not have a veto.


The government also promised to support a backbench amendment that would give MPs at Westminster a vote before entering the backstop, promising that it would not last more than 12 months. Downing Street acknowledged that Britain would remain subject to its obligations under the withdrawal agreement, which says the backstop would remain in force “unless and until” another solution is found to keep the Border open.

Senior EU officials are relaxed about the amendment and the policy paper, which they characterise as cuisine interne that could become a domestic political problem in Britain but does not affect the substance of the Brexit deal.

The EU will issue some further assurances on the backstop next Monday, to be published by the European Commission rather than the European Council.

The council said on Thursday that the assurances would be based on the commission’s existing negotiating mandate for Brexit, which does not allow for any changes to the withdrawal agreement. These assurances are unlikely to persuade the DUP or hardline Brexiteers to abandon their opposition to the backstop and to vote for the deal.

Yet after months of mesmerising Westminster with their elaborate displays of intransigence and bloodcurdling turns of phrase, the DUP’s refusal to budge is for many Conservatives becoming more tiresome than impressive. The prime minister this week began to court fresh suitors, making her first effort since taking office to persuade Labour MPs to work with her on Brexit.

"I've been saying for five months now that I would be prepared to vote for the withdrawal agreement, but Theresa May needs to get in touch with Labour on our frontbenches and backbenches, and start having this dialogue about what we need to have the confidence to vote for it," Wigan MP Lisa Nandy said on Thursday.

Right of her party

“Until now she’s only been prepared to talk to her party and particularly the right of her party. Until she starts to tilt back to the centre and have those conversations with the majority of parliament who don’t support no deal and don’t support a hard Brexit, she’s not going to get this withdrawal agreement through.”

If MPs reject May's deal next week they will be free to test alternative approaches to Brexit in amendments to a motion she will have to introduce within days. They have already shown there is no majority for a no-deal Brexit and a second referendum cannot win a majority in the Commons unless Jeremy Corbyn whips Labour MPs to support it – which he is unwilling to do.

That leaves as the only remaining options versions of May’s deal, probably including more economic integration with the EU to win the support of Labour MPs. The Brexiteer diehards on the Conservative backbenches may soon discover that the prime minister’s deal they condemn as a sellout is the hardest Brexit available.