Can the Prime Minister dare to dream that her Brexit deal will pass – perhaps as soon as next week? It is striking how Brexiters from the ERG group are lining up to tell me how reasonable they are trying to be. After well over a hundred Tory MPs failed to vote for Yvette Cooper’s amendment last night, which simply captured the PM’s u-turn pledge to allow MPs to delay Brexit, one senior Tory texted me to insist this was “more cock up than conspiracy”.
“Bit of a mess. Nobody expected Cooper to move the amendment. Letwin had said they wouldn’t. People had left the chamber. Others thought the position was to abstain as the government didn’t shout yes and didn’t shout no. Whips didn’t chase people until nearly five minutes in to the vote. Some of the abstentions were government, they thought it was over…I wouldn’t over read it”.
Hmm. There may be a bit of protesting too much. All the MPs voting against the May-backed amendment – 20 of them – were Tory Brexiters. And the abstainees included most of the biggest Brexiter beasts – Duncan Smith, Raab, Johnson, Whittingdale and ERG leaders Baker and Rees-Mogg – although not David Davis. But it does matter that some of these Brexiters would prefer to be seen as bumbling rather than deliberately intransigent.
Whittingdale made plain why this is, on my show last night. He signalled quite how desperate all but the Brexiter ultras are for the PM to come back with a piece of paper that would allow the attorney general Geoffrey Cox to claim that being in the backstop is no longer an eternal sentence. The bar for Whittingdale’s support for the PM’s deal has dropped a long way.
“What we want is something which gives us legal certainty that there is a way out of the backstop. As long as we are convinced that this does represent a legally binding solution to the problem. We have lots of unhappiness about various elements of the withdrawal agreement, but I want to leave on the 29th March.”
Note well: Whittingdale is now prepared to vote for a Brexit deal he regards as massively sub-optimal rather than take the risk that the PM’s concession of a possible short Brexit delay ultimately lands him with a super-soft version of Brexit, one that he would regard as vassalage till we’re all dead and decomposed (and his Tory colleague Sir Oliver Letwin on my show laid out his cunning plan to organise a backbenchers’ revolt to coerce the PM to deliver just such Norway-plus version of our permanent relationship with the EU).
For the avoidance of doubt, I am not saying even Whittingdale’s somewhat woolly test will be met by EU leaders. I don’t expect them to agree that there will be an enforceable end date for the backstop, or a unilateral exit mechanism, included in the new codicil to the Withdrawal Agreement that is being drafted.
I expect this codicil will simply put into more legally binding form what Juncker and Tusk – presidents of EU commission and council respective – have written already, which is that the backstop is by definition a transitional arrangement to a permanent settlement. This won’t satisfy most Tory Brexiters. But a sizeable number of them may at the last adopt their erstwhile ally Gove’s dictum that it is a mistake to reject a stinker of a Brexit (in their view) if the alternative is even worse (“don’t make poo the enemy of poison”).
And as long as they are joined in the lobbies by enough Labour MPs who hate Corbyn’s reluctant conversion to the referendum cause, May’s Brexit deal could just scrape through.
Am I saying that is likely? No.
But is it possible? It is. It is.
Robert Peston is ITV’s Political Editor. This article originally appeared on his Facebook page