To the surprise of no-one, Theresa May won last night’s confidence vote by 200 votes to 117. Equally unsurprisingly, the leaders of the other 27 EU countries have welcomed her survival, but are not going to re-open the withdrawal negotiations. As far as they are concerned, the deal is agreed, needs to be ratified before the end of March and needs to be in place before the European Parliament elections in May.
May’s problem remains unchanged: She failed to build any sort of consensus over Brexit in the early part of her premiership by pandering to the extreme wing of the Tory party. By the time she realised how damaging and incoherent her initial position had been, divisions had become so entrenched that any hope of agreement had long gone.
The agreement she has reached is probably the best way out of the mess she created, but it satisfies no-one and, crucially, no-one feels under any obligation to support it.
So for all the hyperventilating in the press, nothing has changed. Possibly.
For the past two years, May, like many Conservative leaders before her has been running scared of the hardliners in her own party. But now they have shown their hand and confirmed both that they will never support her and they are unable to bring her down. So now she has an opportunity to face them down. There are several things she could do.
Firstly, she should come clean about the fact that neither she, nor anyone else, is going to achieve any significant changes to the Withdrawal agreement and that the Irish backstop is necessary because of her own red lines.
Given these facts, and her evident commitment to the deal she has struck, May’s most obvious course of action would be to call a referendum with a straightforward choice: ‘My deal or Remain’. The Moggites will kick up a fuss, of course, but they have demonstrated that they can’t put up. So she should have the confidence — and does have the support within her party — to tell them to shut up. I know she’s always dismissed having another referendum out of hand, but one more u-turn isn’t going to make much difference for her.
Alternatively, she could leave the deal as is, and announce that she wants to achieve the so-called Norway Plus relationship with the EU. This might require some changes to the political declaration, but this could be easily done and allows her to stay consistent with her repeated assertion that Parliament must deliver on the referendum result. Of course, she would have to abandon her hostility to freedom of movement, but this is another red line that is causing her problems while winning her no friends.
Personally, I think it would be better for Parliament to admit that the claims made by the Brexit bunch during the referendum were, at best, inconsistent and delusional, that the promised benefits of Brexit are unachievable, that the whole thing should be called off, and then revoke the Article 50 notification. Realistically, I don’t see this happening — it would require a little too much taking back of control for Parliament.
Either of these scenarios would involve May recognising that the Brexit wing of her party will never be satisfied and cannot be relied upon. She would, therefore, need to build a Parliamentary consensus across sane Tories, the moderate wing of the Labour party, the SNP, the Liberal Democrats, Plaid Cymru and the Green. Even the DUP may support the Norway option since it avoids crossing their red line of no divergence between Norther Ireland and the rest of the UK.
The numbers are there and enough MPs are worried enough about the consequences of Brexit that a sufficiently skilled and patient parliamentarian could assemble a cross-party majority specifically to avoid the rapidly approaching cliff edge.
Is Theresa May the leader to achieve this?