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JAMES BALL: The Brexit deal no-one loves

Exclusive photograph of all of those who love the Brexit deal in the Commons (Photo by Arcaid/UIG via Getty Images) - Credit: UIG via Getty Images

Cabinet might have approved the Brexit deal, but will their support last? JAMES BALL looks at the challenges Theresa May faces.

Almost every week for the last two months has been described as a ‘crunch week’ for either Theresa May, Brexit, or both. It seems like that is finally true, and that May has a deal to bring back to the UK.

That’s when things really get tricky: there are numerous hurdles between Theresa May and her goal of getting a withdrawal agreement in place, and it’s not remotely obvious that she can clear any of them.

Before getting to those hurdles – and why each is so tricky – it’s worth quickly assessing where May is. Her negotiations with the EU have been deadlocked for months over one final issue: the Irish border.

The UK and EU agreed a backstop last December that would keep Northern Ireland in the customs union (and most elements of the single market) even in the event of a no deal – which would create a border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.

Despite the whole cabinet agreeing this deal, and it being seen as fairly uncontroversial at the time, numerous Conservatives – and the DUP, who May relies on to prop up her government – are vehemently opposed to it, now they’ve decided to pay attention.

This has left the UK trying to find some other form of backstop, or a means of unilaterally quitting the backstop, neither of which has the slightest chance of getting EU agreement. That means May either needs to back down, or find some form of words she hopes will look like a concession to Brexiteers, even if it doesn’t change the substance.

The politics of this are tricky for May: most of her voters – and quite a few of her MPs – simply don’t care about Ireland, or even the future of the UK as a union. Polling for the Universities of Edinburgh and Cardiff last month found 75% of English Conservative voters would support the collapse of the Irish peace process as a price worth paying for Brexit (and 79% would find Scotland leaving the UK as a price worth paying).

These feelings even hold in Northern Ireland, which would surely feel the brunt of a hard border or resumption of conflict: 87% of Leave voters in Northern Ireland would see a collapse in the peace process as worth it to secure Brexit.

That leaves May in a mess: she needs to make concessions over the Irish border to secure the Brexit deal she – and the UK, unless it avoids Brexit altogether – desperately needs, but her supporters aren’t willing to make them.

May’s plan to navigate this appears to be running out the clock: even if a deal is agreed by the time this is published, a vote in December would be the earliest possible opportunity, leaving almost no time for alternative plans to May’s deal to form. Her hope, then, is that given the huge stakes on the table, business leaders and others will pressure MPs to take May’s deal, even if it’s bad, rather than face chaos.

Here’s how that might play out.

The cabinet

Usually a prime minister can rely on support from the cabinet for her proposals. These are not usual times. Dominic Raab, the minister in charge of securing a Brexit deal, is reportedly pressuring the prime minister to pursue a ‘no deal’ Brexit. Andrea Leadsom, who controls the passage of bills through the Commons, has made sounds against a deal on multiple occasions. Around a third of the Cabinet meet for weekly ‘pizza parties’ where they debate mutiny.

It is not at all clear May can present a Brexit deal without losing a considerable portion of her Cabinet, particularly as several of them are openly positioning themselves as her potential successor.

While May would be unlikely to lose a vote of the Cabinet if one was held, a series of Cabinet resignations would be followed by resignations of junior ministers – which could spark a crisis before any Brexit deal got anywhere near the House of Commons for a meaningful vote.

A leadership challenge?

Conservative backbenchers have led the media up the hill on a leadership challenge more times than the Grand Old Duke of York, but if they’re ever going to actually go for it – sending the 48 letters to trigger a challenge – it will come in the wake of a Brexit deal, and its ensuing flurry of resignations.

Unlike Labour contests, Conservative challenges don’t pit the incumbent against a challenger (or challengers), meaning the vote essentially becomes whether or not to keep Theresa May, which could itself easily become a vote on her deal in which only Conservative MPs can participate.

One complicating factor in this vote is that if May wins she cannot be challenged again for a full year – which might swing some reluctant voters against her, if that would be the only opportunity to unseat May until everything was done and dusted.

Meaningful vote: Conservatives

Assuming May survives to present her Brexit deal to the Commons – as she is required to by law – she’s then got to secure a majority of MPs to vote in favour of it. If all of her Conservative MPs voted in favour of it, she’ll be within striking distance of securing that.

But that’s by no means a given. When it comes to it, May can probably count on the majority of her MPs backing the deal fairly quietly – around two-thirds to three-quarters, some 200-230 MPs will likely back the deal with no fuss. That’s a long way short of the 324 votes (the technical number for a majority would be 326 votes, but the speaker and his deputies don’t vote) she needs.

The two groups who may vote against are a small group of around 10-15 Conservative Remainers, including Dominic Grieve, Anna Soubry, Nicky Morgan and Justine Greening. This group will come under considerable pressure to yield and vote through a deal, with the government trying to convince them that a no-deal Brexit would be the alternative. This group has persistently talked up threats to May, only to cave and vote with her at the last minute. She will doubtless hope they will do so again – and may be right.

The bigger group of likely rebels is the ERG – the so-called ‘European Research Group’ – of 50-60 (or more) hard Brexiteer MPs, led by Jacob Rees-Mogg and including Cabinet resignees Boris Johnson and David Davis.

Voting against a deal would give this group more of what they want – divergence from the EU and the ability to sign trade deals, and also let them take no responsibility for May’s deal, should it pass. This will prove a very tempting offer for many of them, who have no sign of wanting to compromise, either with May or with reality.

Efforts from May and from whips to convince Tory Remainers that the alternative is no-deal might make it harder to sway ERG voters. She could instead try to convince this group the alternative to her deal would be no Brexit, or a people’s vote – but that would make it harder to swing Remain votes.

May would have one final option with this group: threaten a general election if she lost this vote – but that will give her problems elsewhere.

Meaningful vote: Labour

Theresa May is counting on Labour votes to secure her Brexit deal. She should not be confident of getting them.

Jeremy Corbyn may not want to stop Brexit – while Keir Starmer may try to assure supporters everything is on the table, the leader has been clear – but he certainly doesn’t want to support a Conservative Brexit, and he doesn’t want Labour to be tied to whatever (likely unpopular) deal is placed.

This means the Labour frontbench will likely whip its MPs hard to vote against a deal. Deviating against this will be difficult, even for Labour MPs in areas which voted Leave, many of which polling suggests have shifted their view – such as in Jess Phillips’ Birmingham constituency.

Voting with May on an unpopular deal, in a vote which would prop up her premiership, and which would deliver Brexit on her terms would be a ‘courageous’ (in the Yes, Minister sense) thing for any Labour MP to do. Some may feel they have a responsibility to do so, but this is likely to be a handful at best.

May is unlikely even to be able to rely on the handful of ardent Leave-supporting Labour MPs: Kate Hoey has said she will reject any deal which includes a backstop – which means any deal – while the hard-left backbenchers who support Leave are unlikely to back the Conservatives in a key life-or-death-of-the-government vote.

Meaningful vote: the other parties

The SNP and Liberal Democrats both support People’s Vote, and so are vanishingly unlikely to ever consider backing a deal presented by Theresa May. That leaves her with the ten votes of the DUP.

This seems a remote hope: even if they could be persuaded to back down from their own red line against the backstop, they would face electoral disaster among their own supporters for doing so. Given securing their lukewarm support for a year or so cost the government £1 billion, it’s hard to imagine what price could make them give up something they actually care about.

Where May is – and where we are

Given the realities of the Commons, it’s not only almost impossible to see where a majority comes from for May’s deal, it’s virtually impossible to see where a Commons majority comes for anything: some want an impossibly hard Brexit, some want a mainstream Brexit, some want to stop Brexit, and some will vote against anything that moves in the hope of triggering an election.

May’s hope is that outside pressure from business, from the EU, from the markets, and others will force MPs to vote through her deal rather than face panic.

It’s about to get very loud – but the clamour might not lead to any progress. Buckle up.

• Read more from James Ball in The New European every week. Get 26 issues of the newspaper delivered to your door for £30 and receive a set of our exclusive Christmas cards.

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