If Theresa May cannot advance the prospects of her Brexit deal with any confidence next month, second referendum proponents will at least get a chance
Theresa May’s slow-roast Brexit deal returns to the Commons next week for another stir of the pot. The withdrawal agreement has the whiff of something that has hung around too long to sharpen appetites. For all the bravado she has shown, she starts the new year with the same problem that haunted her premiership in the old one. The prime minister has shown her strength in withstanding Rocky Marciano levels of punishment – and still being there the next day. But she has not persuaded a large number of colleagues, who told whips that they would not support her in early December, to do so before Brexit has to be suspended or a more dramatic exit beckons.
Hardly anyone close to May expects her to triumph when the postponed vote is reconvened. The best she can hope for is that the result will show momentum towards her position, putting pressure back on parliament to come to a decisive view on the alternatives. Only at that point, predicts one senior cabinet figure, will “something akin to the deal” have a chance of success.
Still, the grey lady remains in Number 10, thwarting many predictions of mortality. Faced with the old jibe that she is “in office but not in power”, the PM’s implied answer is that she would still much rather be in office than not. It is, alas, too late to hope for a change in her modus operandi. One ally notes that her ongoing talks with the EU on any possible tweak to the phrasing of the Irish backstop are still conducted “in a tunnel”, reflecting her fear of leaks and a low level of trust around the cabinet table.
The pressure of hasty preparation for a no-deal outcome has added another layer of irritation. Annoyance over the revelation of spending more than £100m on ferry contracts to ease congestion at ports demonstrates the world of pain any no-deal scenario holds for the government. The Brexit menu, so decisively offered in 2016, has turned into a series of mushy dishes with various ingredients chucked in and fished out at the last moment. The optimistic case (from Number 10’s position) is that more pro-Leave MPs fear “losing” Brexit. Team May believes that parts of the hardline Eurosceptic bloc of up to 50 MPs have become less adamantine. A source close to the European Research Group tells me that the impact of Jeremy Corbyn’s shroud-waving of a vote of no confidence in the government before Christmas helped “warm up” relations between Downing Street and the ERG and Democratic Unionists on whose votes the government relies for survival.
Some Brexiters are “looking for the ladder down which to climb”. A New Year knighthood for John Redwood, a persistent Eurosceptic since the 1990s, and elevation of three more Brexiters to the privy council is intended to sweeten Leavers’ mood. Others might be prevailed upon to reconsider, when parliament moves to weighing up the alternatives.
There are, however, two reasons why May-mentum might falter. The first is the oldest in the marketing textbook: rebranding a not-good-enough product as better value than the other bad products around has a low rate of success. The second is that, while support in parliament for a second referendum is much lower than its advocates would like, more pro-Remain MPs grudgingly admit that it might nonetheless be an option. I still find it hard to see enough Labour MPs in strong Leave seats moving in this direction, while many frontbench figures of the soft left, from Angela Rayner to John Healey, clearly remain unconvinced and Leave seats are the main targets for Corbyn in a general election. But if May cannot advance the prospects of her deal with any confidence next month, second referendum proponents will at least get a chance to test out whether the ground is shifting in their favour.