Theresa May has met Tory MPs tonight in a last-ditch effort to try and persuade them to vote for the Brady amendment tomorrow. She said that she would go back to Brussels and push for ‘fundamental changes’ to the backstop. But to do that, she needed to be able to show the EU that parliament was behind her—and so, MPs had to vote for the Brady amendment.
May said that the government would whip in favour of Brady, essentially making it government policy. (Some in the room, though, say that May suggested in one answer that this would be subject to Cabinet agreement).
Getting the Brady amendment through will be an uphill task. As Katy reported earlier, the ERG is currently not planning to vote for it. But it is hard to argue with the logic that the EU won’t listen to any request for changes to the backstop unless May can show that this would get the withdrawal agreement through parliament.
The most dramatic moment in the meeting came, I’m told, when Boris Johnson urged Theresa May to say what she wanted in terms of changes to the withdrawal agreement. May replied that they wouldn’t get any changes unless parliament voted for Brady. As Boris pushed her for more detail, May leaned forward and said, ‘I’m happy to battle away Boris’.
May’s other agenda tonight was to dissuade the more Remain wing of her party from voting for the Cooper amendment tomorrow. May stressed that tomorrow ‘won’t be the last opportunity to express a view on no deal’. She said that the government would be back in the Commons with an amendable motion by the 13th of February. In other words, you don’t have to vote for Cooper tomorrow as you’ll have other opportunities to back an Article 50 extension before March 29th.
In a sign of how difficult it will be to get the Brady amendment through, John Redwood urged the Prime Minister to take wider soundings before committing to it—which is a polite way of saying he wouldn’t vote for the withdrawal agreement even if the Brady amendment succeeded. Andrew Bridgen then said that May’s deal was not a deal as the UK didn’t get anything in return for its £39 billion.
If Brady doesn’t’ pass tomorrow, it’ll be yet another blow to Tory unity. Before May spoke, Graham Brady explained why he—who normally doesn’t take too public a position during inter-party disputes—had put down an amendment and was urging them to back it. May then warned that the Tories had two tasks, keeping Corbyn out and delivering Brexit. She said that there were three options on Brexit—no Brexit, a deal or no deal. She argued that the short-term economic consequences of no deal would be damaging for the Tories as the governing party. The implicit message was clear: no deal would make a Corbyn government much more likely.
Right now, it doesn’t look like Brady has the votes to pass even with the government whipping for it. But if the ERG won’t back it, they’ll be making an epoch-defining mistake. If it becomes obvious that May can’t get pretty much any withdrawal agreement through with Tory and DUP votes, the only options she’ll have left will be softening Brexit to try and get Labour support or requesting an extension to Article 50 and fighting a general election on the basis of her deal. Neither of these outcomes would be good for the ERG and the kind of Brexit it wants.