At the beginning of this week, I wrote an article on VozWire in which I made injudiciously bold predictions about how the next few days of Brexit votes in Parliament would go. Despite last-minute concessions from Brussels on the backstop on Monday night, the government’s Withdrawal Agreement was indeed voted down by the House of Commons for the second time on Tuesday, with No Deal then heartily rejected on Wednesday – twice, in fact. On Thursday, Parliament conceded the inevitable by consenting to an extension of Article 50 and a delay to Brexit.
If those predictions were ill-judged, this next one is of near-catastrophic foolhardiness; in the next few days, the Prime Minister will put her Brexit deal to a vote in the Commons for a third time, and she will win.
It is difficult to convey concisely just how incredible that outcome would be. Such a victory would be nothing short of era-defining. When the first Meaningful Vote was lost in January by a margin of 230, it was by far the largest defeat suffered by a British government – ever. The BBC’s Nick Robinson memorably described it as: “Extraordinary. Humiliating. Unprecedented.” To lift herself out of the bottom of that pit and be able to declare victory for her Brexit deal within a mere couple of months would not only define Theresa May’s premiership but quickly become a major pinpoint in British politics. Future historians would look back on that feat with awe and wonder. And yet, it could well happen.
There is serious talk in Westminster that there will not be another vote on the deal for some time, if at all, even though the Prime Minister herself has promised one by 20 March – this Wednesday. The common understanding is that the government will not go ahead with a third vote until it believes it has a real chance of romping home to victory, as has been confirmed on the record by Chancellor Philip Hammond. In other words, this is the real thing. With the previous two votes – three, if you count the Meaningful Vote That Wasn’t from back in December – it was clear that the chances of the deal passing were painfully slim, yet the government pressed ahead anyway. This time, though, it seems that no dawdling will be tolerated. They are, in crude terms, in it to win it.
In October, I wrote an article alleging that the Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) – the Conservatives’ confidence-and-supply partners, who prop up their minority government – had become largely irrelevant, on the basis that their ten MPs would be easily outnumbered by the vast swathes of wavering Labour and Tory backbenchers, and therefore that their stance on any Brexit deal would be essentially negligible, with the vote being decided by the prevailing mood in the two main parties.
With hindsight, the role of the DUP may prove to be much more significant than I had thought. The backbenchers still hold the bulk of the votes and therefore the balance of power on any path forward but, crucially, many of them have enormous respect for the DUP. At least a couple of dozen Tory MPs are, in essence, waiting for the green light from the DUP to take the plunge and back the deal. Since the Irish backstop has become the defining issue in the debate over the Withdrawal Agreement – and the party relied upon by the Conservatives for their parliamentary majority hails from Northern Ireland – the DUP carries huge sway over whether or not it passes.
The DUP has always been a pro-Brexit party but, first and foremost, its members are Unionists who will oppose any measure they see as driving a wedge between Northern Ireland and Great Britain. Inconveniently for the government, the backstop fell foul of that principle in their eyes, leading to months of relentless criticism from the DUP. The line taken by it and its Tory Brexiteer allies is that the customs arrangements implicated in the backstop threaten to create a new border down the Irish Sea by applying different standards on business and industry in Northern Ireland and Great Britain, thereby threatening the unity of the United Kingdom.
An endorsement from the DUP, therefore, would be enormously authoritative. Senior Brexiteer Jacob Rees-Mogg – the chairman and de facto leader of the European Research Group (ERG), a collective of furiously loyal Brexiteer Conservative backbenchers – even went so far as to say that if the DUP came out in support of the deal, he would back it too, and encourage his ERG colleagues to do the same.
There have now been clear signs of movement on this from senior figures in the DUP. Where just a few weeks ago their preferred strategy was to take to whatever TV studios would host them to lambast the government – and the Prime Minister especially – for neglecting Northern Ireland during the negotiations, they have recently softened their standpoint markedly, most notably by agreeing to talk to Number 10 directly and seriously, and apparently to give serious consideration to an offer that may have been made to secure their backing.
STORY CONTINUES BELOW...
ITV’s Robert Peston reports this evening that the Prime Minister has made the substantial concession that if the backstop safety net is ever triggered, causing some EU regulations to be forced upon Northern Ireland, Great Britain will voluntarily adopt those same rules so that there can be no semblance of a customs border within the United Kingdom. This, like many aspects of the Prime Minister’s approach to Brexit, is genius that will go largely unsung. Perhaps paired with a friendly boost to next year’s Northern Irish operating budget, it has the potential to earn DUP support and thereafter precipitate a chain reaction among Tory backbenchers that could well send the Withdrawal Agreement sailing through the House of Commons on a wave of venerable pragmatism.
In addition to new DUP and Conservative support, there is a very real prospect that the deal will, this time around, gain additional votes from the Labour benches. The unique way in which the Labour party works means that Jeremy Corbyn is still its leader, despite the fact that the vast majority of its MPs would very much rather he retired to his hydrangeas. Somehow, though, he stumbles on as Leader of the Opposition, but with an entirely incoherent Brexit policy which ludicrously demands that any Withdrawal Agreement guarantee the retention of all the benefits of EU membership, even after we have left. If anybody says with any confidence that they can concisely explain what the Labour policy on Brexit actually is, they are deluded or lying (or, as is often the case, both).
Crucially, a majority of Labour constituencies voted Leave, and those voters are becoming understandably concerned at Labour’s edging towards ultra-Remain policies such as a second referendum. Moreover, apathy towards Brexit outside the Westminster bubble is growing exponentially. MPs report that the most commonly recurring theme in their conversations with constituents is that everybody would very much like Brexit to be over and done with and approving a Withdrawal Agreement at least allows for some degree of progress towards leaving the EU to be made.
The result is that a wealth of Labour backbenchers is concerned about fulfilling the Brexit mandate – both in order to boost their chances of re-election, and to make their constituency surgery sessions marginally more bearable – and not opposed to rebelling against the party leadership. Many are therefore itching to back the Brexit deal, and are eagerly awaiting an excuse to be able to do so. If the DUP was to reverse its position and declare that its concerns about the Irish border had been offset, that would likely be sufficient for several Labour members to claim that the most prevalent concern over the Withdrawal Agreement had been resolved and they now felt comfortable voting for the deal.
Perhaps most conclusively, it is slowly dawning on even the most ardent Brexiteers how puerile it is to have longed and campaigned for Brexit for the length of their political careers, only to denounce it as it sits in front of them. It is finally becoming apparent that the Withdrawal Agreement is just that – a deal that outlines how the UK will leave the EU – rather than pertaining to the long-term future relationship. What I wrote back in December appears clearer than ever before: that the choice MPs face is a simple one; this Brexit, or no Brexit at all.
Darren Grimes, for instance, led BeLeave, one of the three main pro-Brexit campaigns before the referendum. Matthew Elliott was the quiet genius behind the Vote Leave campaign and continues to influence Brexiteers across the breadth of Parliament with his brilliant new platform, BrexitCentral. Ben Bradley MP resigned from a leadership position within the Conservative Party over Theresa May’s approach to the negotiations. Similarly, Esther McVey MP quit her post in Cabinet because she believed the Prime Minister had conceded too much to Brussels. All of these people have now said that MPs should back the government’s Brexit deal in the next meaningful vote. Even among Conservative voters, support is skyrocketing for simply accepting the deal and moving on.
In the time between the first two Meaningful Votes, the Prime Minister managed to widdle the majority against her down from 230 to 149 which is, in itself, a quite substantial achievement, especially given the volume of furore resulting from the legal advice of Attorney General Geoffrey Cox about the practical meaninglessness of those last-minute changes to the backstop.
The Prime Minister now only requires an extra few dozen votes in the Commons to pass her deal which, given the progress she has made already with no real change, along with the new momentum in favour of her deal and the possibility of a DUP endorsement, is now a real possibility. Before the vote earlier this week, political analysts such as Beth Rigby of Sky News – who are as plugged in to the Westminster matrix as it is possible to be – predicted that just fourteen MPs would switch sides and back the deal. In fact, the number of converts to the government position was nearly triple that.
All of this means that a Commons majority in favour of the Withdrawal Agreement – which would be totally unprecedented and utterly remarkable – is now imminent. Either way, PhDs will be written about this week for decades to come.