Are Brexiteer MPs about to row in behind May’s deal? This is the question that has dominated the weekend’s papers with speculation rising that the threat of a delay to Brexit – or no Brexit – means the European Research Group (ERG) are ready to soften their red lines. Sir Graham Brady – chair of the 1922 committee of Conservative backbenchers – has used an op-ed in the Mail on Sunday to say that he is now ready to back the Prime Minister’s deal – so long as the ‘right compromise is offered’. The Sunday Times splashes ‘Brexiteers offer peace terms to May’ with news of three tests the ERG will use to test out what ever concession the government returns from Brussels with.
With the Prime Minister to put her deal to a vote either this week or next, some are beginning to think what once seemed impossible is possible: May’s deal could pass. However, it’s not clear that much has moved as of yet. While it’s certainly the case that leading Brexiteers – including Jacob Rees-Mogg – are actively looking for a reason to back the deal, everything hinges on what Attorney General Geoffrey Cox comes back with. In this vein, there has been some movement among Brexiteers – with the bulk now saying they would accept changes on the backstop in the form of a legally binding codicil or appendix. Previously, many ERG members insisted the Withdrawal Agreement had to be reopened.
However, there remains a significant gap between the type of changes the Brexiteers are saying they need to back the deal and the type of changes the government believe they have a chance of getting. Rees-Mogg and others have said they want a clear time limit – or sunset clause – and an unconditional route out of the backstop. However, Cox and co are aiming for a join-interpretive exit mechanism which will allow him to change his legal advice – and say that the UK won’t be trapped indefinitely in the customs union. Even that is proving hard going – one minister says that as soon as May promised a vote on delaying Brexit, Brussels became harder to work with on a compromise. Were Cox to achieve something to strengthen his legal advice, it would be enough to win around some of the MPs who voted against May’s deal the first time. But it’s not clear that such a change would satisfy the likes of Bill Cash, Steve Baker or Bernard Jenkin. The government believe that if they can get the DUP on side, a significant chunk of Tory MPs will follow. The DUP’s Nigel Dodds is one of the Brexiteer MPs making up a new ‘star chamber’ of legal minds to pass judgment on the compromise.
It follows that there is a chance Cox’s compromise falls short of Brexiteer demands and he gets a response not too dissimilar to the lukewarm reception David Cameron got when he unveiled his doomed Brussels renegotiation.