What can we expect from the prime minister’s decision to speak with senior parliamentarians to gauge the kind of Brexit deal, if any, that might get through the Commons?
I have been talking with members of the cabinet and those close to her – and they are divided on whether this is a genuine attempt to find a workable consensus or simply more Micawberish delay in the hope that unknown events will bail her and her government out.
First things first.
In the motion the PM will lay before the House, probably on Monday as she is obliged to do under the Grieve Amendment, don’t hold your breath for a sharply delineated set of proposals to put back to the EU for negotiation.
Instead, according to a senior member of the government close to May, there will be more on the process of getting to that set of proposals. It will be a general statement about the direction of travel.
The point is, according to that ally of the PM, there are two huge aspects of her plan that need to change, one that is ‘easy to describe but incredibly hard to execute’, according to the ally, and the other which ‘may turn out to be easier to do but is incredibly hard to describe’.
The easy-to-describe change to the deal would be to put a time limit on the backstop, to placate Northern Ireland’s DUP. The problem is that ‘it is by no means clear the EU will agree to that’, says a minister. And my EU sources concur.
The perhaps easier to negotiate change would be to narrow the focus of the political declaration to give MPs more comfort about the nature of the UK’s new long-term trading relationship with the EU.
The problem is that the only version of that relationship that a clear majority of MPs would accept is the one described today in the Commons by the father of the House, the Tory MP Ken Clarke – who said it would involve permanent membership of the customs union and permanent alignment of the majority of business standards and regulations with those of the EU.
This would probably sway sufficient numbers of Labour MPs and even perhaps the leadership of the Labour Party to see the deal pass through the Commons. And there is evidence that leaders of the EU27 nations would acquiesce in it.
The problem is that well over 100 Tory MPs would detest that deal, which they would see as turning the UK into a vassal state forever. And at least 50 of those MPs would probably resign from the Tory party if it became official policy.
Oh, and by the way it would involve the PM sacrificing several of her precious red lines – and as I understand it she has made clear in private conversations, even yesterday, that she is still reluctant to do that.
So in practice, however much the PM has entered into this phase of negotiating with senior parliamentarians to find a compromise in good faith, it is very difficult to see this approach achieving any substantive progress towards a deal that could be approved by her and by the EU.
Because at some point she will have to choose between the only deal that may be negotiable and splitting her party. And I have met no MP who sees her as Robert Peel prepared to see the break up of the Conservative Party for what she sees as the national interest.
This impasse will become painfully clear, perhaps as soon as next week, but perhaps not till the middle of February – because that is when backbench initiatives to seize control of the Brexit process will reach their apotheosis (right now that looks like taking the form of MPs supporting Boles’s law, which would see parliament forcing the government to request a nine month delay to the UK leaving the EU).
At that belated moment of truth, as I said last night, the PM is likely to face the ineluctable choice between becoming the lame-duck servant of a parliament that doesn’t really know what it wants, supporting a no-deal Brexit, which would see a third of her cabinet resigning, and a referendum that could yield no Brexit at all.
Putting a probability weighting on which of those will transpire is an idiot’s game.
There is an alternative, put to me by one of the sharper-minded members of her party. Even though it looks as though Labour does not have the numbers to force an election, with the Tories still ahead in the polls she may end up deciding a general election is preferable to what she sees as the Hobson’s choice of no deal, no Brexit or a parliamentary coup against her
There is just one humungous flaw in this argument.
Theresa May would have to lead the Tories in the election campaign, in spite of her promise never to do that again. And we know how that turned out in 2017.
Robert Peston is ITV’s Political Editor. This article originally appeared on his Facebook page.