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Theresa May has thrown the dice up in the air tonight

28 January 2019

10:57 PM

28 January 2019

10:57 PM

I have given up trying to understand Theresa May.

I used to think she was the most methodical and risk-averse of politicians.

But she has tonight thrown the dice up in the air – or perhaps, to use George Osborne’s analogy, pointed the loaded revolver at herself.

Because she is whipping for the Brady amendment that calls on her to rip up the backstop and replace it with unspecified alternative arrangements to keep open the border on the island of Ireland.

And she is doing that to prove to the EU that if it dumps the backstop, her Brexit plan might at the last be ratified by MPs – and yet she knows quite what a long shot that is, and how desperate some would say she seems.

The point is that she is almost certain to be humiliated and lose the vote on the Brady amendment, because of opposition from the ERG group of Brexiter Tory MPs (those led by Jacob Rees-Mogg) who don’t believe the Brady amendment is specific enough about how the backstop would in practice be shredded, and who don’t trust her to deliver on it unless the amendment is put in her name (which she is reluctant to do).

So those close to May are already conceding to me that they expect her to lose on the Brady amendment, but that would be OK so long as the margin of defeat were not too great – because just maybe she would then be able to persuade the EU that Labour MPs are biddable with offers to preserve workers’ rights and environmental protections, and (again) just maybe the backing of these Corbyn refuseniks would see her reworked deal over the line.

This feels like Olympic-level straw-clutching.

More problematic still for the PM, and as she admitted to her backbench MPs at the 1922 meeting this evening, she has no properly worked-out alternative to the backstop to offer to the EU.

Which is a problem because, as one of the EU’s main Brexit negotiators Sabine Weyand said today, there is no way the EU will remove the backstop unless and until she can prove there is a credible alternative.

In fact Weyand went further and said that such an alternative does not and cannot exist.

That said, Weyand is not the whole EU, although she represents a powerful strand of thought within the EU.

That is why ministers and officials close to May are not confident that when she finally gets round to suing the EU for a new deal, the EU’s 27 leader would do as the ERG Brexiter MPs say is the sine qua non of their eventual support, namely to re-open the so-called Withdrawal Agreement in order to make any eradication of the backstop legally enforceable.

Or to put it another way, there is a growing fear and frustration among some Tory MPs and ministers that all this will come to nought – and the UK would be ever closer to leaving the EU without a deal, which (they fear) would put the country’s prosperity and security in some jeopardy.

So perhaps 40 Tory MPs may both obey the prime minister in voting for a Brady amendment in which they have little confidence, and then disobey her by voting for the Cooper/Boles amendment that – as I explained earlier today – would force the PM to sue the EU to delay Brexit day.

Every vote will count, whichever side you are on – because although my understanding is that Labour will impose a three-line whip for Cooper/Boles, and against Brady, the more Brexity of Labour MPs (though not that many of them) will defy the Labour whip, and vote with the PM on both.

In other words, in the balance are whether the UK has any prospect of a negotiated Brexit by the due date of 29 March, and whether the last vestiges of Theresa May’s authority will disappear down the plug hole of a Tory party at war with itself.
The other question is whether any of the 20 odd ministers who view a no-deal Brexit as less appealing than a swimming pool filled with steaming poo will resign in the next 24 hours, in order to be liberated to vote for Cooper/Boles.

One minister told me he thought the government would ‘hold together tonight’ so long as May gives a ‘clear commitment to ensure Parliament will have another chance early enough for a Cooper/Boles style bill to get through both houses’.
Or to put it another way, May may avoid her cabinet collapsing tomorrow only if she commits to ruling out a no-deal Brexit before the point of no-return is passed.

Robert Peston is ITV’s Political Editor. This article originally appeared on his Facebook page.

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