Jo Johnson’s resignation, the DUP kicking off and the European Commission’s Article 50 task-force talking about a lack of progress mean that it hasn’t been a good end to the week for Theresa May. As I write in The Sun this morning, one government source says ‘if there’s no November Council, then no deal goes into overdrive’.
But given Theresa May’s desire to avoid no deal there probably will be some sort of agreement in the not too distant future. But it will be flawed—and Theresa May should say so.
Why would a Prime Minister admit that a deal they’ve negotiated isn’t great? Because if May tries to say that this agreement is perfect and that there’s no risk of any part of the UK getting stuck in the backstop, then she’ll easily be disproved.
What made Geoffrey Cox’s argument at Cabinet on Tuesday persuasive was that he didn’t try and pretend the choices were simple. He said that when it came to quitting the backstop ‘a unilateral right would give the UK greater scope to establish its case, as the other side would have to prove the contrary’. But he went on to acknowledge that negotiating a unilateral right to get out of the backstop was highly unlikely to be possible in the time available and a mutual review mechanism could be made to work.
Cox’s essential argument is about managing risk. Every option on Brexit now carries with it risk. The challenge is to work out how to best manage these risks.
The risk with accepting a legally binding backstop in the withdrawal agreement is that the UK ends up being unable to get out of it cleanly. It would be dire if the UK ended up leaving the EU in a way that tied it to the EU forever.
But set against this must be the risk of no deal, and the disruption it would cause. To make matters worse, the government has done absurdly little to mitigate no deal. The reason why even Cabinet Ministers who loathe where the negotiations are heading don’t want to go for no deal is that they know how unprepared the country is for it.
At the same time, there’s a risk that if there’s no deal parliament would either insist on a second referendum—that would harden divisions in the country and toxify our politics—or cancel the process altogether, creating a dangerous democratic deficit.
Frankly, the argument that May’s withdrawal agreement is less bad than the alternatives will be pretty much the only thing going for it. The argument that her deal is less bad than the other options is what is keeping the Cabinet on board and it is her best—and, possibly, only—way of getting the House of Commons to vote for such a flawed agreement.