Despite the cabinet revolt, Theresa May’s Brexit star is rising

May continues on her twin tracks towards achieving the impossible

John Rentoul
Saturday 23 February 2019 16:05
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Theresa May saddened by MP departures

Today, in “Constitutional Innovations Induced by Brexit”, we have the concept of optional collective responsibility. Three cabinet ministers, Amber Rudd, Greg Clark and David Gauke, have written an article explaining why the government’s policy is wrong.

Last year Rudd resigned because she told a select committee what her civil servant told her to say, but this time she has merely contradicted the prime minister on the central question facing the nation and undermined the government’s negotiating position in Brussels.

Paradoxically, however, the chances of Theresa May getting her Brexit deal through parliament are rising. I think it is now the most likely outcome, with the UK leaving the EU on 29 March or a few weeks later.

Partly, this is because it is finally sinking in that the chances of a no-deal Brexit are small. Today’s cabinet revolt reinforces the solid majority in the House of Commons against it happening. If the prime minister fails to win parliament’s approval of her deal, the alternative is likely to be that Brexit will be postponed, possibly for ever.

The prospect of Britain leaving without an agreement still scares people because May refuses to rule it out. But she has to do that because it is the only remnant of negotiating leverage she has in Brussels. However much Rudd, Clark and Gauke weaken her hand, the EU side can never be completely sure that the prime minister won’t reveal herself as Theresa “Mad Dog” May at the last moment, determined to tear the house down if she can’t get her own way.

Thus she and Geoffrey Cox, the attorney general, are making progress towards a legally binding appendix to the deal – which is the second reason for thinking that a deal might finally win through.

The EU negotiators can be forgiven for having their doubts about the other constitutional innovation induced by Brexit, namely the assertion of the right of the House of Commons to legislate against the wishes of the government.

They cannot be sure, just because some journalists said it, that, if May didn’t rule out a no-deal Brexit, the House of Commons would. After all, Yvette Cooper and her cross-party coalition of backbenchers failed in their attempt last month to legislate against “no deal”.

However, Cooper lost that vote by only 23, and only because Rudd and her supporters were willing to give the prime minister a few more weeks to negotiate. That time has now expired, and this coming week the House of Commons is finally going to have to make some decisions rather than express pious hopes.

The Cooper plan looks certain to win the vote on Wednesday. We have yet to see if Rudd and colleagues will resign from the government to vote for it – or if the doctrine of cabinet government will be further revised to allow them to stay in post and vote against their own policy. But in any case there will be enough Ruddite Tories on the backbenches to reverse the result from last time.

The only thing that could stop the Cooper plan would be if May were to put a revised deal to the Commons first and win the vote on that. The indications are, however, that Cox’s legal drafting will not be ready in time.

So May continues on her twin tracks towards achieving the impossible. Once Cooper closes off the option of a no-deal Brexit, Jacob Rees-Mogg and his cohorts have to choose between the prime minister’s deal and delaying Brexit. At the same time, Cox’s codicil could give them the excuse they need to decide that the deal is bearable after all.

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The critical question is whether Cox can do enough to satisfy the DUP that the withdrawal agreement will avoid a regulatory border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK. With the DUP on board, the deal is done. Theresa May can still get it through without them – and the creation of the Independent Group means the DUP can no longer bring her government down – but she would need 83 of the 107 no-deal Tory MPs plus 35 Labour MPs to support it.

If she can’t get it through, the alternative is not a no-deal Brexit on 29 March, but delay and more uncertainty. It is only then that the attitude of Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the official opposition, has any bearing on the issue. This week John McDonnell responded to the threat of further Labour defections by tiptoeing towards a second referendum.

If Theresa May secures her Brexit deal it will be because enough Tory and Labour MPs who think her deal is bad decide that another referendum is even worse.

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