People's Vote 16 November 2018 | 15:20

Brexit Deal-Watch 4: May’s Mexican stand-off

16 November 2018 15:20

So: she’s still in Number Ten. As ever, Theresa May’s accomplishments fall under the rubric of inertia, stubbornness and stasis. Immobility is her USP.

While the Tory rebels bicker over how many letters calling for a leadership contest have actually been delivered, the PM seems to have persuaded Michael Gove, Penny Mordaunt, Andrea Leadsom, Chris Grayling and Liam Fox not to resign – for now.

You can bet that their collective decision not to follow Dominic Raab and Esther McVey out of Cabinet is entirely provisional and entirely conditional. Don’t assume that the political tourniquet will hold. The blood could gush again at any moment.

Will May face a confidence vote? She will be preparing now for such a challenge, and deciding – as all embattled leaders must do – what level of support from her parliamentary party would constitute a clean win, enabling her to carry on as PM. Interestingly, Steve Baker, the deputy chairman of the hard Brexiteer European Research Group, has sent conflicting signals during the day about the number of letters that have been formally despatched by MPs calling for such a vote. To proceed, the mutineers need at least 48 – and there is no sign yet that they have officially reached this threshold. Which is not to say that they won’t in the coming days.

What are Gove et al up to? He turned down the offer of Dominic Raab’s old job as Brexit Secretary, preferring instead to remain at Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to press the case for further negotiation with Brussels. Like many Brexiteers, Gove clearly believes that the EU can be pressed further on the ‘backstop’ mechanism that would keep the whole UK in the Customs Union question was resolved – in other words, indefinitely. There is absolutely no sign of room for manoeuvre on this in Brussels; but the Leave camp has never let the facts stand in the way of magical thinking. Mordaunt, meanwhile, is pressing for a free vote in the Commons on the deal: a concession that May and her Chief Whip, Julian Smith, are very unlikely to make, except in extremis.

What is May’s strategy? She and her allies are busily re-framing Brexit as a moment of national crisis, comparable to the Crash of 2008-9, or even the Blitz. We are all suddenly enjoined to pull ourselves together, blow our noses and get on with it. This is significantly different from the original branding of Brexit as a great emancipation, the re-birth of Britain as a free country, a lion uncaged to roar once more on the world stage. The offer now is not a New Jerusalem, but the Least-Worst-Option-Available. Scarcely inspiring, but more honest than the absurd over-claiming that has characterised much pro-Leave rhetoric since 2016 (often to the point of pure misinformation). What the PM is presenting now is less a blueprint than a challenge: what would you do and how would it be better? At every turn, she will tell MPs that it is time to put the public out of their misery, deliver the deal, and get on with other matters. This is, of course, profoundly disingenuous, drawing, as it does, a false distinction between Brexit and other aspects of domestic policy. But it will have some traction, at least, with Tory MPs fearful that the electorate is running out of patience and will punish the main governing party if the Brexit controversy continues to dominate the news (which it will, whatever happens).

Where are Labour? John McDonnell, the Shadow Chancellor, said this morning that May should hand over the reins of power to Jeremy Corbyn and give Labour the opportunity to run the show as a minority government. Somewhat implausibly, McDonnell suggested that there was the basis of a Labour ‘unity platform’ at Westminster – a majority just waiting to coalesce around ‘the permanency of the customs union, the relationship with the single market.’ Not sure about that one, John. Meanwhile, the party’s deputy leader, Tom Watson reiterated its official position (not one so warmly embraced by Corbyn himself) that a People’s Vote is very much on the table, and has become ‘more likely given the weakness of Theresa May’s position.’

What next? The weekends are when politicians do their most murderous plotting, away from the goldfish bowl of Westminster. There will be clandestine meetings, endless WhatsApp traffic and phone calls around the clock. This is multi-dimensional politics, embracing the possibility of a Tory leadership contest, a general election, a no-deal Brexit, a fresh referendum, or permutations of the above. It is in the middle of crises like these that Sunday papers and the Sunday morning political shows – the BBC’s Andrew Marr, Sophie Ridge on Sky – come into their own, so expect some significant interventions in both. If the guns have fallen a little quiet for now, that is only because the main players are encircled in a Mexican stand-off where the stakes are nothing less than the future of the country.

(PS do watch our special Brexit Vodcast with Matt Kelly, pioneering Editor of The New European)