February 04, 2019
Watch out for the resurgence in Tory unity
The most important political trend over the last three days in the UK has been the reemergence of Tory unity and, linked to this, a shockingly large rise in the polls. As the Times columnist Philip Collins noted, the party has rediscovered its legendary survival instinct.
Where does this leave Brexit? Theresa May has mapped out a narrow path towards a deal - a side treaty, or codicil, to give legal clarification to the temporary nature of the Irish backstop; more money for Labour constituencies; perhaps acceptance of some of Labour's policies, and maybe changes to the political declaration. It is also not hard to see where this strategy could go wrong.
The Observer has an opinion poll showing a landslide shift in favour of the Tories. The previous Opinium Research poll had Labour ahead of the Tories by 40% to 37%. But the latest poll has the Tories ahead, at 41% against Labour's 34%. That's a ten-point swing. This result now squares with polling from YouGov, which had the Tories ahead by 6 points. The poll does not necessarily make an election more likely, but it disproves the theory that the Tories cannot conceivably win it. They could, for example, fight the election on the basis of the so-called Malthouse proposal - acceptance of the withdrawal treaty minus the Irish backstop. If this position were to find a majority in the electorate, it would cast the next government's negotiating position in cement.
We were struck by a comment from Juliet Samuel in The Telegraph. We know her as one of the more level-headed and informed among the British commentariat, but we were surprised to read that she now favours a hard Brexit without a deal. We think she is, as so many Brexiteers, naïve about the EU's willingness to strike a trade deal after a no-deal Brexit. We would assume that the EU would insist on agreement on the equivalent sections of the withdrawal treaty, including the Irish backstop and the financial settlement, as preconditions for any broader deals with the UK. But however realistic the assumptions may be, her comment raises the question whether a hard Brexit may be the one Brexit option with the greatest potential to unite the party.
In his Times column, Collins writes that May should have narrowed down the three Brexit options - deal, no deal, remain - to two. He argues, as so many other commentators do, that the parliament's opposition to a no-deal Brexit implies that the natural choice is between deal and remain. The problem is that this argument can be turned on its head. There is no outright majority in the parliament for Remain either. This is why May's best strategy for now is to keep this equidistance.
The reason we believe a deal is most likely is the shifting position of the Labour Party. Polly Toynbee, a pro-Remain Guardian columnist, is exasperated by Jeremy Corbyn.
"The shock of the failure of the Cooper amendment was that it was brought down by 25 Labour MPs voting against or abstaining: no one expected many beyond the usual Eurosceptics. But they were joined by sensible people...who understand real-world effects of parliamentary gestures. It was shocking too that eight shadow ministers defying a vital three-line whip... were not sacked... They were given a wink that they wouldn’t lose their posts. Jeremy Corbyn’s heart never seems 100% in the great Brexit fight – to put it politely."
But a deal is far from guaranteed. Here is a plausible no-deal scenario: Assume that May comes back from the March 21 summit with an insufficient guarantee on the backstop. The Parliament would vote on Tuesday, March 26. If the vote is no, then parliament might then vote on revocation of Brexit, a motion that would also fail. The following day, May would inform the European Council that the UK is leaving the EU without an agreement, but would seek an extension to minimise the disruption.
We still think that a deal is the most likely option but, if it were to fail, we consider the above sequence as the most plausible alternative. Parliament's opposition to no-deal is irrelevant if it cannot translate into a Remain vote.