IN the next week, the fog of uncertainty hanging over this country will either begin to lift or become far thicker and more set in. If Theresa May
IN the next week, the fog of uncertainty hanging over this country will either begin to lift or become far thicker and more set in.
If Theresa May can on Tuesday win the vote on her Brexit deal at the third time of asking, then the road ahead will become much clearer.
But if she loses again, this country’s future will — to an uncomfortable extent — be in the hands of the European Union.
The DUP, with its ten MPs, will be key to what happens.
If the Government can satisfy them, then Mrs May has a chance of winning the vote because of the domino effect them coming across will set off.
If she can’t, she — as No10 aides admit — might as well not bother holding one.
The DUP spent yesterday in intensive talks with senior Government figures. I understand these talks were broadly positive. One Cabinet minister close to the process tells me the chances of the DUP backing the deal are, “a bit better than 50:50. I’d put it at 60:40”.
What is winning round the DUP is the promise of putting into the Withdrawal Agreement Bill, which puts the deal into UK law, a requirement that there be no divergence between Northern Ireland and Britain.
I am told that if Attorney General Geoffrey Cox’s legal advice had been different, then the DUP would have been on board this week
The Withdrawal Agreement Bill would be so-called superior legislation. This would mean it would trump any other bill, giving the DUP some reassurance that the next Prime Minister couldn’t let regulatory differences emerge between the rest of the UK and Northern Ireland.
Parliament will also be given a scrutiny power over the backstop, allowing it to vote every few years on how it is operating.
At the same time, the UK Government will seek to offer the DUP some reassurance about this country’s ability to get out of the backstop. I am told that if Attorney General Geoffrey Cox’s legal advice had been different, then the DUP would have been on board this week. One Cabinet minister tells me:
“Geoffrey did cost the DUP.”
To sweeten the deal for the DUP, there will be money and ladles of respect. The DUP want a new “policy package” to replace their confidence and supply deal with the Tories which runs out in June.
To say that these negotiations are delicate would be an understatement. I am told, “if people put too much pressure on them, there’s a danger that they’ll bolt”.
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WE have got plenty of respect for the Brexiteers who have resisted backing the PM’s deal.
In an ideal world, we’d be right with them.
But with this Speaker and this Parliament any hopes for a better one, or for a clean break, seem for the birds.
As James Forsyth says, the “big beasts” of the backbenches must show some leadership.
Boris Johnson, Dominic Raab and Iain Duncan Smith were leading lights of the Leave campaign, but by not backing the deal they are now imperilling the whole project. They won’t be forgiven.
Good card players know when to hold ’em and know when to fold ’em.
Wise politicians must be no different.
FULL-EXTENSION TO ARTICLE 50
But if the Government can get the DUP, it is confident that Jacob Rees-Mogg will then come on board.
Despite voting against the deal on Tuesday, European Research Group chairman Rees-Mogg left himself a ladder to climb down, repeatedly declaring that the only reason to vote for this deal was if Brexit was in genuine danger.
After the Commons voted against No Deal and for an extension, it clearly is.
The big question is how many Brexiteer rebels climb down Jacob’s ladder. Downing Street think there are 25 to 50 Tory diehards who won’t vote for the deal even with the DUP on board.
The precise number is absolutely crucial. As one senior Downing Street source explains: “If it is at the lower end of that scale, it can be made up with Labour. If it is at the higher end, it can’t be.”
There are, I’m told, between 20 and 30 Labour MPs prepared to back a deal but only if it has a realistic chance of passing. Influential figures in the Cabinet are urging No10 to make the vote on Tuesday a free vote, to make it easier for Labour MPs to support it.
If the deal doesn’t pass on Tuesday, then Mrs May will have to go to the European Council on Thursday and beg for a full-on extension to the Article 50 process. I am told she is dreading this personal and national humiliation.
The Commons should spare her and, more importantly, the country, that.
It’s time to take the lead
RIGHT now there is little sign that either Boris Johnson or Dominic Raab are going to move and back the Brexit deal.
Both feel that their reservations about it are still too strong.
But there is a danger for them both – 66 Tory Eurosceptics voted against the deal on Tuesday night.
Whatever happens with the DUP, that number will drop a bit when the meaningful vote comes back for a third time.
The danger for Boris and Raab is that if they walk through the lobbies with this shrinking group, they will start to be seen as purely factional candidates, and purely factional candidates rarely win leadership contests.
Already some of those who backed Boris last time and had been planning to do so again are peeling away.
Interestingly, I understand that Boris is coming under pressure from Jacob Rees-Mogg to help get the Brexit deal over the line.
Now is a moment that calls for bigness.
If either Boris or Raab were prepared to say that – despite their reservations – they were going to try to get the deal over the line, because Brexit is only going to get softer otherwise, they would show they have the selflessness necessary to lead.
Face-off with Juncker was no croak
WHEN your voice is going, what’s the last thing that you want? A meeting with a heavy smoker.
But that is what Theresa May had to contend with on Monday after she flew to Strasbourg for last-minute talks with European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker.
By Wednesday, Mrs May’s voice was so bad that No10 had a plan for Andrea Leadsom, to take over halfway through PMQs if her voice gave out completely.
- THERE has been plenty of chaos in the House of Commons this week. But perhaps the most remarkable moment came on Tuesday night, when the Government was deliberately causing a delay in the voting lobbies to give Mrs May more time to think about what to say after the defeat of the meaningful vote.
Vote rebels given too much stick
TO get people to do things you need both a carrot and a stick.
But the problem for the Government is that its warnings to Brexiteer rebels are all stick.
It is pointing out that Brexit will only get softer if MPs don’t vote for the deal. This is right, but these MPs need a positive inducement too.
One Tory who carries messages from Theresa May’s Downing Street to the Brexiteer rebels tells me: “If she offered to go, she would get very close and possibly do it.
“It unlocks those people whose self-perception is that they don’t give in to blackmail.” This source continues: “If the DUP move, Jacob (Rees Mogg) moves, if Jacob moves others follow, but you don’t quite get there without the carrot.”
Mrs May could leave with dignity, having secured an orderly Brexit and having managed to avoid a split in the Tory party.
She wouldn’t need to leave the next day, either.
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But just in time to ensure that a new Prime Minister had their feet firmly under the desk before a new European Commission comes into office this autumn.
One reason why an indication that May will go is so important is that there is assumption she will try to stay if the withdrawal agreement passes.
One Cabinet minister tells me: “If she gets a deal through, she won’t be able to resist clinging on.”
The problem with this, as the go-between explains, is that, “a situation where Theresa May gets the meaningful vote and stays is to some people the worst possible outcome”.
- James Forsyth is political editor of The Spectator.
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