Theresa May is back in the Commons this afternoon updating MPs on her Brexit deal. She’s in the middle of a frenzy of campaigning that makes her efforts during the referendum itself look quite lacklustre (admittedly not hard, given how little effort the then Home Secretary put into that campaign), with phone-ins, newspaper interviews and a bid for a live TV debate on Brexit with Jeremy Corbyn. Tomorrow, May is also going to tour the UK to sell her deal to the public.
The Prime Minister’s strategy is to talk over the heads of her warring party and straight to the public, in the hope that at least some of those MPs will heed the real opinions of their constituents and switch to voting for the deal in Parliament. Given the size of the threatened rebellion (follow our live list of MPs who are saying they will vote the deal down here), this makes the PM look far stronger than were she to launch into endless meetings with groups of grumpy backbenchers.
But there will of course be a great deal of behind-the-scenes activity from the whips and May’s aides as they try to whittle down the numbers of rebels. And one of the risks for the Prime Minister is that MPs who might be biddable end up being put off by the approach that May and her aides adopt. Up to this point, backbenchers have been insulted by the way they have been invited into Number 10 for Brexit meetings which turn out merely to have been with May’s staff, rather than anyone elected. The Conservative Party holds elected office in great esteem, and MPs have felt palmed off by being left with people like May’s Deputy Chief of Staff JoJo Penn.
One MP who is currently supportive of the deal said to me: ‘To be honest, if I got invited into Number 10 as a way of persuading me to vote for this, I’d be furious that they thought I was so cheap as to be impressed just by a building. It’s not that I want the Ritz, darling, it’s just that I’d expect a bit more intellectual effort than trying to get me excited with a famous door.’
Other MPs complain that Number 10 has invited them in for meetings in weird groups which are half angry Brexiteers and half intrigued pragmatists, with those in the latter group feeling as though they can’t get a word in edgeways while the former complain.
May herself cannot spend so much time talking to the country that she forgets to do the – often extremely boring and frustrating – job of sitting down with backbench opponents of the deal and listening to their concerns. Otherwise, the nationwide tour, smart as it is, won’t work.