If in doubt, double down. Earlier this month we argued here in The Independent that the prime minister should be able to build momentum for her deal once agreed. And we are sticking to our guns. What’s more, we think her much-derided draft agreement, should it turn into an actual agreement, might yet defy the odds and be approved by parliament.
We originally argued that a deal would change the context of the Brexit debate, that sterling would bounce and that businesses would come out in favour of the relative certainty that it provides. Some of this has already happened – although our point referred to after the European Council rather than the week leading up to it. The CBI’s President John Allan came out in support of the deal, saying it “avoids the wrecking ball that would be a no-deal departure”.
Meanwhile, in Northern Ireland, the intransigent stance of the DUP is coming in for scrutiny. Our colleague Colin Harvey has pointed out that their Brexit stance is being questioned by “prominent figures from across the community in Northern Ireland”, and that businesses and the wider community have cautiously welcomed the protocol on Northern Ireland.
We’re not, of course, making any firm predictions about what’s going to happen politically. Brexit has confronted us with a series of equally implausible alternatives, one of which will have to come to pass. There could yet be another referendum, a general election, or the UK might even crash out of the EU without a deal at all. Or, of course, there is the deal itself.
The hostile reaction it received in parliament, and the spate of resignations and rash of no confidence letters that followed its unveiling, underlined all too clearly that the parliamentary odds do not appear to favour the PM.
Yet there is still time before the vote. We (along with Goldman Sachs) continue to expect a post-summit bounce, and, judging from the last week, we’d expect sections of the pro-Brexit media to come out in favour of the deal.
Mrs May seems to have stabilised the cabinet by holding on to the Pizza Club of key pro-Brexit ministers and adding some waverers from both Brexit wings of her party to the government payroll. And she has in fact strengthened over the past week, with polling published in The Times revealing a 13-point increase in support for Theresa May among the public. MPs reluctant to support a prime minister on the verge last week are more likely to come on board as her position gradually improves.
Moreover, the prime minister still has some wiggle room. Remember, the Withdrawal Agreement, is a document filled with obligations – to pay money, to provide rights for EU citizens and to avoid an Irish border. There is a slight chance that this might yet be revised to hold out the possibility that both sides can just about conceive of a technical fix that might obviate the need of the contentious backstop ever being needed. That might yet sway some pro-Brexit MPs who fear the chaos that rejection of the deal would unleash.
And sugar for the rather bitter pill of the withdrawal agreement might also be provided by the political declaration. Henry Newman has gone through some of the ways in which this might be drafted to maximise political backing. As the clock ticks down, the options will crystallise into real choices. Not this deal versus a hypothetical ideal outcome, but between the deal, no deal or a general election or referendum.
Once the package lands in parliament, process, sequencing and timing will matter enormously. Indeed, it might transpire that getting the barrage of criticism over and done with last week was a tactical masterstroke. Whilst opponents of the deal have worn themselves out, the prime minister can come back from Brussels on Sunday and start to build a more durable coalition.
Those against Theresa May’s version of Brexit have pretty much had an open field up to now, but the prime minister has begun a highly orchestrated campaign defending her position properly, perhaps for the first time.
Moreover, as Labour MP Lisa Nandy has pointed out, the order in which the Commons deals with amendments to the motion on the Withdrawal Agreement will be crucial. Anti-Brexit MPs are divided over whether to put up amendments calling for a referendum first, or to force a defeat of the deal and then put together a pro-referendum coalition.
If a pro-referendum amendment is defeated, the ensuing meaningful vote comes to look like a choice between deal and no deal, which might cause more parliamentarians to opt for the former. And, as Raphael Hogarth argues, some Tory Remainers might then be persuaded to support the PM.
Meanwhile, the prime minister will continue to try to pile pressure on her party from below. A Survation poll showed a slight plurality of Conservative councillors thought MPs should support the deal, with almost two-thirds saying they would back her personally in a confidence vote. It may be that ramping up constituency pressure on MPs will also help her shift some waverers, though polling by Conservative Home underlines what a mountain she has to climb to persuade her grassroots.
It is, of course, far from certain that Mrs May will prevail. It may even take her two bites of the cherry to do so, as those recalling the experience of the TARP [financial] programme in the United States in 2008 have been keen to point out. In that case, US lawmakers rejected a bailout package the first time, but passed it on a second vote when the markets baulked. MPs here could well face similar circumstances, and the pressure to support the deal could become overwhelming.
After two years of this weak and wobbly prime minister, we’ve surely learned that its rash to write her off.
Anand Menon is director and Matt Bevington a policy researcher at The UK in a Changing Europe
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