Theresa May stands forlorn as MPs line up to attack her Brexit deal

London Letter: Parliamentary arithmetic suggests deal will be defeated in December vote

Theresa May cut a forlorn figure in the House of Commons on Thursday morning as one MP after another, many of them from her own party, stood up to denounce her Brexit deal. It was an hour into the three-hour debate before the first Conservative MP spoke in support of the draft withdrawal agreement.

Before that, the prime minister heard MPs from both the Eurosceptic and pro-European wings of her party criticise the deal her cabinet had approved after a five-hour meeting the previous night. Iain Duncan Smith began by telling the prime minister he had always wished her well before accusing her of betraying the promise of the 2016 referendum by accepting a backstop from which Britain could not unilaterally withdraw.

Jacob Rees-Mogg praised the prime minister as "unquestionably honourable" before describing how she had broken her commitments on Brexit and asking why he shouldn't write to Graham Brady, the chairman of the 1922 committee, to say he had no confidence in her leadership.

DUP deputy leader Nigel Dodds dispensed with weasel flattery and spoke plainly and his intervention was all the more effective for it, silencing the chamber.


“I could stand here today and take the prime minister through the list of promises and pledges that she made to this House, and to us privately, about the future of Northern Ireland in the future relationship with the EU, but I fear it would be a waste of time, since she clearly does not listen,” he said.

"The choice is now clear: we stand up for the United Kingdom – the whole United Kingdom and the integrity of the United Kingdom – or we vote for a vassal state, with the break-up of the United Kingdom. That is the choice."

Confidence and supply

Dodds made clear that the DUP will not vote with the government on the withdrawal agreement, but, since the vote has not yet been called, his party's confidence and supply agreement with the Conservatives remains in place. The DUP, which has aligned itself with the Eurosceptic European Research Group (ERG), will sit back and wait for the Conservatives to determine May's fate over the coming days.

The ERG is divided over the wisdom of precipitating a confidence vote in the prime minister, partly because she cannot be challenged again for another 12 months if she survives it. This immunity from challenge has had the effect of slowing the flow of letters to Brady, who must call a confidence vote if 48 MPs express no confidence in the prime minister.

Once a vote is called, however, the immunity will work against May because many MPs want to keep her in place until Britain leaves the EU next March but to install a new leader to take charge of negotiating the free trade agreement. The prospect of another year of the prime minister’s leadership is intolerable to many Conservatives, including some in government.

If May escapes or survives a confidence vote, she will travel to Brussels on November 25th to sign off on the Brexit deal

Most of the ministers who resigned on Thursday cited the backstop as the most unacceptable element of the withdrawal agreement. Part of the problem lies in the fact that, although the Northern Ireland-specific backstop was supposed to be replaced by a UK-wide version, it remains scarcely concealed beneath it.

As Jeremy Corbyn pointed out, it applies separate regulatory rules to Northern Ireland, "creating a de facto border down the Irish Sea, as Northern Ireland would be subject to the customs union but not the rest of the UK".

Future relationship

If May escapes or survives a confidence vote, she will travel to Brussels on November 25th to sign off on the Brexit deal. Downing Street has made much in recent days of the political declaration on the future relationship between Britain and the EU, which will be expanded from an outline into a text that May’s allies believe will be an improvement from Britain’s point of view.

If the deal goes to a vote in early December, the current parliamentary arithmetic suggests that it will be defeated by a combination of opposition parties, the DUP and Conservative rebels from both sides of the debate. Faced with the prospect of leaving the EU without a deal, MPs may demand an alternative option.

Some favour a second referendum, which is difficult to achieve without government support. Labour wants a general election, an option unlikely to win support among Conservatives. The form of Brexit most likely to command a majority is probably one which would keep Britain in the single market and the customs union with some concession on the free movement of people.

Such an option would win the support of dozens of pro-European Labour MPs, perhaps enough to outweigh the votes of Conservative Eurosceptics. It would break apart the British party system in a manner unthinkable in normal times but, in the political crisis Brexit has created, it could be as plausible an option as any.