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Thursday 17 January 2019

Last night, Theresa May won the confidence motion against her government before inviting leaders from opposition parties to meet with her in order to reach a “consensus” on how to leave the EU with a deal. The motion fell short by 19 votes (325-306) a larger margin than the government’s working majority.

Contradicting statements from Downing Street issued twenty-four hours earlier, as a party leader, Jeremy Corbyn was asked to contribute. He is yet to accept the offer.

May’s overture marks a new chapter in the Brexit saga. Up until now, she has only ordered daylight raids across her red lines without a declaration of war. She is now poised to do just that, in an alliance with the opposition.

A peculiarity of May’s dismal deal – defeated on Tuesday evening in the Commons by a record margin – is that strictly speaking, she could honestly say that her deal conformed with her original Lancaster House vision, simply because it was supposed to be temporary. It wasn’t a commitment to open borders, nor staying in the Common Fisheries Policy permanently nor the Customs Union among other things, of course, however, it didn’t rule out those prospects either.

The Irish backstop and the waffley political declaration had the benefit (from May’s perspective at least) of being attainable but not so attainable as to be a concern for her to grapple with in the here and now, for the time being, it’s all about withdrawing from the EU and setting the legal conditions for her beloved implementation period, that’s all.

In other words, in true May fashion, her deal was a giant can-kicking exercise, only on this occasion, the EU would have sole control of the can’s trajectory through its veto over when the backstop.

Following the deal’s defeat, the prime minister’s only hopes of getting a deal through parliament appear to be through springing the trap in the withdrawal agreement, namely the backstop, and getting influential figures likes Yvette Cooper and Hillary Benn onboard, Labour MPs who want to be seen to be in favour of some sort of Brexit.

However, Cooper and Benn are unpopular with the Labour leadership and despised by the swelling second referendum caucus within the party for betraying (how ironic) their touchy-feel soft-left internationalist roots.

Labour policy is for a customs union – a face-saving way of saying the Customs Union – which will deny Britain her return to the international trade scene. This is the aspect of emancipation from Europe that unites Conservative MPs the most – many of them have an irresponsible lust for more and more immigration. The prime minister may succeed in getting the votes of 50 or so Labour MPs in replacing the backstop with the Customs Union, but it will come at the cost of even more votes from her own benches.

Her tactics, therefore, point to a circular strategy, whereby May will court the interest of other parties and confect an even more appalling withdrawal arrangement, one Brussels will be only too happy to approve, and then use it as leverage to get those pro-Brexit Conservatives onside to approve the original one.

Ambitious to say the least. Most of the 118 Conservatives who voted against the deal will only accept an alternative that goes in the opposite direction, a Canada-style conventional trade deal. If that’s not an option, no deal it is, exactly what the public voted for.

May and her cabinet know this of course, which is why they’re exploiting every avenue available. Their first priority, one shared with nearly all the MPs across the aisle, is to rule out the option of a no deal. This manoeuvre has already begun. The Telegraph report this morning that in his conference call with business leaders shortly after Tuesday’s vote, Philip Hammond said Article 50 could potentially be rescinded. “We can’t have a no deal,” said Business secretary Greg Clark, who joined in on the call along with Brexit secretary Steven Barclay. Credit to Barclay, who sought to play down that prospect as it would weaken our negotiating hand. He is the only one of the three cabinet ministers to have actually voted to leave the EU.

But revoking Article 50 is very much the nuclear option, it would be the most blatant betrayal of the common democratic will and would destroy the Conservative party, severing ties with the grassroots in one fell swoop (see Tweet of the Day below). In the meantime, it appears Downing Street’s hopes are resting on MP Nick Boles’ cross-party bill to extend the negotiating period with a view to both a Customs Union and Single Market arrangement, the blueprint that could attract the backing of Labour MPs. During the conference call Hammond signalled the possibility of extending Article 50.

“If necessary [we] go back to the EU to agree changes that are necessary to deliver that consensus. And at that time, if more time is going to be required, to negotiate that with the EU,” said the Chancellor of the Exchequer.

Hammond and May hope such an option will be an effective deterrent, incentivising the original deal. Much like all May’s hopes on Brexit thus far, it looks likely to be dashed.