Less than two months now to go to the set Brexit date of 29 March, and the British government is still treading water.
Prime minister Theresa May has been authorised to try to negotiate changes to the “backstop”, the element of her deal that provides for indefinite membership for Northern Ireland in the customs union. But the European Union has made it clear – again – that such changes are not on the table.
An EU source, quoted by the BBC, said pointedly that “Mrs May was told the EU could not keep guessing what might work, so it was up to the UK to provide solutions that could get a majority in the Commons.”
More significantly, perhaps, May also had a meeting with opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn, which Corbyn’s spokesperson described as “very cordial.” “There was a detailed exchange of views on a customs union and single market relationship.” Guy Verhofstadt, liberal leader in the European parliament, suggested that such talks needed to go beyond “eating biscuits and drinking tea” and come up with a bipartisan solution.
The Europeans know what May has not yet been willing to admit: that if an alternative is to be found to a “no deal” hard Brexit on 29 March, it will have to involve May’s wing – the relatively non-insane part – of the Tory party co-operating with Corbyn.
May, however, continues to give the impression that her strategy is to keep “toughening” her plan so as to win over enough of the hard Brexiters who deserted her in the vote on 15 January. But whatever one thinks of such a strategy in policy terms, the most important thing about it is that it’s mathematically impossible. The numbers just aren’t there.
Even if all of the Tory Brexiters who opposed May were to switch over, and even if she didn’t lose any extra votes as a result (both wildly unrealistic assumptions), she still wouldn’t have a majority. Going “harder” isn’t a strategy to get something through the Commons, it’s just a strategy to keep the Tory party together.
And as long as May continues to treat that as the priority, a genuine alternative to “no deal” can’t be constructed.
Corbyn, of course, is also focused on keeping his party together. He too is distrusted by most of his colleagues, probably more so even than May. But despite that, he has an easier time of it; partly because Labour is naturally a more disciplined party, but mostly because it just doesn’t have the same deep division in opinion about Europe that the Conservatives do.
Labour has no equivalent of the hard Brexiters; even Corbyn, who by Labour standards is a Eurosceptic, does not share the sort of phobia about the EU that is common on the Tory backbench. If he can reach agreement with May on some moderate position – a permanent customs union, or an extension of the process to negotiate a Norway-style deal – he will probably be able to carry the vast majority of his party with him.
If “no deal” looms with nothing else on the horizon, it’s even possible that one of those options could pass without May’s support, if enough pro-European Tories decided to jump ship. But it’s hard to see how it could possibly get through without Corbyn.
The Commons votes earlier this week, in which every alternative to May’s dithering was rejected (some by narrow margins), are being painted as a sign of hopelessness. But what they really show is that party discipline is still strong: only a handful of MPs on each side deserted the major parties.
But the media still tend to present this as symmetrical, as if May faced approximately equal difficulties whichever direction she moved in. In terms of just the Conservative Party that may be true: there’s a rough balance between its two wings, which is why she survived last month’s confidence vote.
In parliamentary terms, however, it’s completely false. There is no hard Brexit majority, but there’s clearly a centrist majority if May and Corbyn are up for it.
Yet here’s Stephen Bush, for example, in the New Statesman:
Parliament doesn’t know much about Brexit, but it knows what it dislikes: it doesn’t want a no deal Brexit, and it doesn’t want a backstop arrangement for the Irish border, without which there cannot be a deal.
But those two things are not comparable. The majority against “no deal” is genuine, but the majority against the backstop is just the product of the Labour whip – not because Labour objects to temporarily staying in the customs union, but because it wants to permanently stay in it.
And May herself (who, it’s easy to forget, voted “remain” in 2016) surely has no principled objection to staying in the customs union, or for that matter the single market. Her position is only about the internal politics of the Tory Party.
Which opens at least the possibility (although it’s no more than that) that at some point she, or a critical mass of those around her, can be convinced either that keeping the party together isn’t possible anyway, or that even if it is, it should take second place to saving the country from the chaos of “no deal”.