It took five hours to accomplish, but Theresa May finally got her cabinet to back a draft agreement on Brexit. The quality of that support appears strained even in May’s own description, describing the decision and the days ahead as “difficult,” while noting that the cabinet’s support was “collective” rather than unanimous. In the end, the prime minister explains in her statement, the Brexit deal negotiated with the EU came down to a Hobson’s choice — this or nothing at all:
The choices before us were difficult, particularly in relation to the Northern Ireland backstop, but the collective decision of cabinet was that the government should agree the draft withdrawal agreement and the outline political declaration.
This is a decisive step which enables us to move on and finalise the deal in the days ahead. These decisions were not taken lightly but I believe it is a decision that is firmly in the national interest.
When you strip away the detail the choice before us is clear. This deal, which delivers on the vote of the referendum, which brings us back control of our money, laws and borders, ends free movement, protects jobs, security and our union, or leave with no deal, or no Brexit at all.
I know that there will be difficult days ahead. This is a decision which will come under intense scrutiny, and that is entirely as it should be, and entirely understandable.
But the choice was this deal, which enables us to take back control and build a brighter future for our country, or going back to square one, with more division, more uncertainty, and the failure to deliver on the referendum.
The enthusiasm of the cabinet might best have been expressed by David Mundell, part of May’s cabinet as Scottish Secretary. Mundell told BBC reporter Nick Eardley that he’s not resigning and no one else will, either … at least for tonight:
Mundell says no resignations tonight as far as he knows…
— Nick Eardley (@nickeardleybbc) November 14, 2018
That’s the good news. The bad news is that some of May’s own MPs might foment a no-confidence vote over the draft agreement. The Guardian does the math:
Rumours were swirling at Westminster on Wednesday night that some discontented pro-Brexit Conservative MPs could seek a vote of no confidence on Thursday by submitting a fresh flurry of letters to Sir Graham Brady, the chair of the backbench 1922 Committee.
If the total number of such letters reaches 48, Brady would have to announce a confidence vote. Jacob Rees-Mogg, the chair of the backbench European Research Group (ERG), said he was “not surprised” if colleagues sent letters, but “the ERG does not have a collective view”. …
Several Brexiter ministers were unhappy about the terms of the deal. One senior leaver said it was “worse than expected”, while another said: “Several people are not in a happy place.”
However, May appeared to have secured the support of her cabinet for now, allowing her to press on with putting the agreement to MPs in a “meaningful vote”, likely to be held early next month.
Even without an immediate no-confidence vote, May could well see her government fall. Thanks to a bungled gamble on an early election last year, May depends on the Northern Ireland party DUP for her parliamentary majority. At least one of their MPs says May’s likely to end up in new elections after losing a parliamentary vote on the agreement, which he calls “a punishment beating” by the EU:
Speaking to Sky News, Mr Wilson said: “This is all about a punishment beating for the UK because they dared to vote to leave the EU. And unfortunately the Prime Minister has allowed that punishment beating to be administered.
“That punishment beating in my belief will damage the UK and damage the UK constitution.”
Mr Wilson said his party would not support the agreement.
So where will May find the votes for this new version of Brexit? Probably not in Labour, which is poised to take advantage of a Tory meltdown:
Labour is confident it can convince the majority of potential rebels to vote with their whip against the prime minister’s proposed Brexit deal, with a number of the party’s prominent Eurosceptics suggesting they would vote it down.
Tory sources had briefed that they believed up to 20 would back the government, but a number appeared to be already wavering on Wednesday, putting the deal at significant risk. …
Those 15 included prominent Brexiters such as Kate Hoey and Dennis Skinner, but also MPs who have been vocal about the need to honour the result of the referendum in their leave constituencies, such as Don Valley MP Caroline Flint and Stoke-on-Trent Central MP Gareth Snell.
However, Skinner is understood to have told allies he will not back the prime minister’s deal. Another leftwing Brexiter, Graham Stringer, said he was “almost certain” he too would vote against.
Hoey has confirmed she will not back the prime minister, writing in a blogpost for LabourList that the deal is “pandering” to threats from the Irish government.
Seems like there are a number of people who don’t buy May’s argument that this was the best deal the UK could get. Frankly, the wonder in this might be that the two sides could produce any agreement at all, although that doesn’t exactly make it good either. The solution to the Irish border issue was, as I speculated yesterday, an agreement that sticks the entire UK in a quasi-customs-union arrangement for the foreseeable future:
The backstop – the insurance policy to avoid a hard Irish border if future EU-UK trade talks fail – will now see the entire UK enter into bare-bones customs union with the European Union, with additional measures on both customs and regulations for Northern Ireland.
Although the backstop’s primary intention was to avoid a hard border and protect the Belfast Agreement, it has now lassoed the UK into a much closer trading relationship, for the medium term at least, than most Brexiters wanted.
With the EU acceding to the UK request to enter into a temporary customs arrangement for Britain as a whole, and not just a Northern Ireland-specific measure, the final iteration of the backstop may protect crucial east-west trade between Ireland and Britain.
Brexit formally takes effect from next March, at which point the UK will enter into a transition phase which will see it remain in the European single market and customs union until the end of 2020.
The provisions of the backstop will then kick in if the EU and UK have not yet concluded a deal on a future trading relationship that will keep the Border open.
Read the European Commission analysis here, but basically it means that the entire UK will remain in the customs union until the two sides agree on a solution to the Irish border issue. That’s not going to sit well with hardline Brexiters in Parliament, nor with those who voted for them. Still, if this goes to a national election, perhaps enough Brexiters will be sufficiently pleased at regaining control of immigration and monetary policy that they’ll be willing to endure the lingering customs-union issues. Given what happened over the previous twenty-seven months, half a loaf might look pretty attractive by now.