Is the Conservative party finally uniting around a Brexit plan? This afternoon, the Prime Minister had a surprisingly good turn at the despatch box. Opening the debate for tonight’s amendment votes, May explained why she was supporting the Brady amendment calling for an alternative to the backstop – and why she rejected all other amendments. She said it was clear what MPs did not want – including her existing deal in that, but said what mattered was MPs now sending an ’emphatic message about what we do want’.
Within a minute of talking, Labour MPs were interrupting to try and embarrass her over her change of tune on the merits of her deal – given that May previously said it couldn’t be improved. However, what will have boosted morale in No.10 is how moderate Remain MPs, European Research Group MPs and the DUP all spoke up in support of her new plan. This is because May has gone further than previously in explicitly saying the change she is seeking is a reopening of the withdrawal agreement in order to win substantive changes on the backstop.
May also did what was required to win the backing of lead Brexiteers in the European Research Group by making positive soundings about the so-called Malthouse Compromise. The brainchild of Steve Baker and Nicky Morgan among others, this proposed plan would see May renegotiate the backstop and extend the transition – should that fail, they would move to a position which is in effect a negotiated no deal. The word this morning was that May was cold on the idea – with a lunch on Monday on the plans said to be frosty. However, in the Chamber this afternoon May went out of her way to praise the plan as a ‘serious proposal’ that ought to be given consideration ‘sincerely and positively’.
Notably May’s endorsement fell well short of the Prime Minister making it the government’s preferred outcome. The expectation now is that the government ought to get close to a majority tonight on the Brady amendment (with MPs seeing as a vehicle towards the Malthouse Compromise plan). However, she will be far from out of the woods. There is scepticism in government that Brussels will even engage with the plans proposed under the Malthouse banner. Should May fail to champion, expect to see Tory support – once again – drain fast.