Editor’s Note: Jane Merrick is a British political journalist and former political editor of the Independent on Sunday newspaper. The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers.
A dramatized version of how the UK voted for Brexit will be shown on the country’s TV screens on Monday evening. But it is the real-life drama that draws into focus for Theresa May as she tries to convince her own MPs, back at Westminster after the Christmas break, to support her deal for leaving the European Union.
The difference is, no one knows how this will end for the Prime Minister – or the country.
In the run-up to Christmas, May survived some of the most turbulent weeks ever in the House of Commons, including a confidence vote among Conservative MPs. She was forced to postpone a parliamentary vote on her Brexit deal after being warned that as many as 100 Tory MPs would vote against it.
Yet if the Prime Minister is entertaining any belief that the 17-day break has caused those MPs to change their minds after reflecting over the Christmas turkey and decide to support the deal, she would be wrong.
May used an article in the Mail on Sunday newspaper to try to spell out in the starkest of terms what the failure of her deal would mean if MPs vote against it next week. Her opponents are not only on the Brexiteer side of the argument, who believe the deal allows the EU to retain too much control over a post-Brexit UK. They also contain Tory MPs who voted to remain in the EU and want a second referendum as an extra safeguard against a hard Brexit.
Addressing both groups using language that would appeal to their conservative values, May warned that a failure to vote for her deal would not only risk democracy – because it could mean no Brexit at all, against the wishes of the British people – but also could cost MPs’ constituents their jobs and the ability to “put food on the table for their families.”
She then went onto the BBC’s Andrew Marr program to insist her deal was the only one on the political table – and if she lost next the vote then “we are in uncharted territory.” She said: “Don’t let the search for the perfect become the enemy of the good, because the danger there is that we end up with no Brexit at all.”
Yet mere words will not be enough to win over the majority of those who were ready to oppose the deal last month. Leading Brexiteer Iain Duncan Smith said Sunday that opinions had not changed dramatically over Christmas. Even a New Year knighthood for veteran euroskeptic Conservative MP John Redwood made no difference, as he announced he would still vote against the May deal.
Cocktail charm drive
The Brexiteers are seeking real changes to May’s plan – such as removal of the so-called backstop, an insurance policy designed to prevent a hard border in Ireland. Failing that, they want a legally binding assurance from Brussels that the backstop will only be temporary. On the Remain side, there is a hardcore group who will refuse to vote for May’s deal without the promise of a second referendum.
The Prime Minister said she will continue to negotiate with EU leaders over the coming days to extract more assurances on her deal – although they are unlikely to meet the legally binding requirement of MPs. She will invite rebellious Conservative MPs for drinks at Downing Street on Monday evening and on Wednesday to try to win them over.
However, May is not known for her winning cocktail hour chat, and the staunchest of euroskeptic MPs are unlikely to back down even in the surroundings of No. 10’s grandest state rooms.
Instead, May’s chances of winning her vote – and in turn surviving as Prime Minister – are likely to rest with opposition Labour MPs and with Brussels itself.
Over the Christmas break, the PM’s aides reached out to Labour MPs, who under their leader Jeremy Corbyn are almost as divided over Brexit as the Conservatives are, to see what the level of support for May’s deal might be. Labour’s official policy is against May’s deal and to demand a general election, but depending on what Downing Street can offer, including the possibility of greater rights for workers written into the text, a number of Labour MPs could be persuaded to defy the official party line and back the deal.
Yet the Remain-supporting groups of MPs in both Conservative and Labour parties are significant enough to block this as a way out for the PM. They will have been encouraged by a poll for YouGov of 25,000 people at the weekend that showed that if there were another referendum on EU membership, 46% of people would vote to remain while 39% would vote to leave.
If those selecting “don’t know” were discounted, the poll suggests a victory for remain: 53% versus 47%, in what would be a near-complete reversal of the 2016 result.
The Prime Minister might have better luck trying to win firmer reassurances from Brussels. One option being considered by No. 10 is to get the Commons to vote for an amendment for further talks with the EU – effectively playing for more time.
The backstop is unlikely to be up for debate, but there is optimism that EU leaders can give more ground in agreeing a deal that the UK parliament would vote for. While EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron have talked tough over Brexit in recent weeks, ultimately they would prefer the UK to have a working relationship with the EU rather than a no-deal scenario – the likely outcome if the Commons refuses to support May’s deal.
Ireland, which will still be a valued member of the EU after Brexit day of March 29, would be hit by the economic turbulence of no-deal Britain – and this is something the bloc wants to avoid.
The UK Prime Minister knows this, too. Since she won her confidence vote last month, her MPs cannot mount another attempt to topple her for another year. She has already said she will stand down before the next general election, slated for 2022. In this sense, May is in a stronger position than she was a month ago.
Yet neither the fundamentals of her plan nor the position of her opponents have shifted since before Christmas, and she now has just over a week to break that deadlock before the vote, likely on January 15 or 16. If she fails, it will be another 73 days before Britain has to leave the EU and, as the Prime Minister said, enters uncharted territory.