After the cessation of hostilities over the Christmas break, the Brexit battle in the Conservative party is swinging back into action as MPs return to Westminster and Theresa May prepares for the defining moment of her premiership so far: the “meaningful vote” on her withdrawal deal due 12 days from now.
But there is little sign that she has any more chance in the coming days of winning over rebel Tory MPs and the Democratic Unionist Party than she did before the holiday. After numerous telephone calls between the prime minister and EU leaders over the last two weeks, and meetings with the DUP, May’s close allies privately concede they are on course to lose the vote set for Jan. 15.
Now May and her top lieutenants have begun gaming how they could bring the deal back for another vote — or even more than one vote. One Downing Street insider suggested to BuzzFeed News that they would put it to MPs as many times as it took to secure a majority. “If we have to have the vote 30 times, we will,” they said. Other senior Tories are suggesting the vote could be delayed again.
To win back rebel Tory MPs if the deal is defeated in the first vote, senior ministers are urging May to consider setting a date for her to step down after Britain leaves the EU in March. The hope is that would convince rebels that a new leader would be in place by the beginning of the future relationship negotiations with the EU. BuzzFeed News understands a cabinet minister first raised the idea in a meeting with May’s chief of staff Gavin Barwell towards the end of last year.
Despite optimism in Downing Street that rebels’ minds could be changed ahead of the vote, Conservative Eurosceptics held a series of New Year conference calls this week in which they reiterated their determination to vote down the withdrawal agreement.
Senior members of the Brexiteers’ European Research Group calculated in phone calls over the last three days that at least 40 of their MPs will vote against the deal unless May secures a clause allowing the UK to unilaterally leave the backstop.
The estimate suggests chief whip Julian Smith could succeed in turning dozens of the 115 Tory MPs who previously said they could not back the plan, but still fall well short of a majority when the deal comes to the Commons on Jan. 15.
It is the working assumption in Whitehall that “the deal won’t get through first time,” but that the government could try to win a later vote, a ministerial aide agreed.
May’s team is confident that if they proceed with the vote and lose, they would win any immediate confidence vote called by Jeremy Corbyn. ERG chair Jacob Rees-Mogg has said he would back the government in a confidence vote and the Democratic Unionist Party has guaranteed its support so long as May’s deal doesn’t pass parliament.
On Wednesday Corbyn said that if the government loses the vote May should return to Brussels for further talks, an apparent departure from the official Labour policy of trying to force a general election, and, if that fails, possibly backing a second referendum.
Number 10 aides believe they could then seek to hold a second vote on the deal, even repeatedly bringing it back to the Commons until the rebels are whittled down and the government has a majority. If May does eventually win a vote, she then faces a race against time to pass the Withdrawal Agreement Bill.
One route to winning round rebels at a later vote could be a commitment to a departure date for May. The PM’s aides have been told by MPs across the Tory party that May would win support for her deal by promising to let a new leader take charge of the negotiations for the future relationship. The idea has the support of ministers with their own leadership ambitions.
BuzzFeed News was told that in a meeting in the autumn, May’s chief of staff Gavin Barwell discussed with a cabinet minister the possibility of the PM setting a date to leave Downing Street. A source familiar with the conversation said the idea was not ruled out by Barwell, but it was seen as a “last resort” after all other options had been exhausted. Another source stressed it was the cabinet minister who raised the suggestion. A second senior adviser to the PM has told friends they are thinking about life after Number 10.
May announced she would not lead the Tory party into the next election when she headed off the attempted coup against her in December, but both Leave and Remain supporting MPs are privately calling for a cast-iron commitment from her to set a firm date for when she will go.
Several MPs who plan to vote against the deal have since told BuzzFeed News they could support it if they were convinced May would quit before the future trade talks with Brussels begin. One said that if May’s deal passed first time she would “hail it as a personal victory” and attempt to stay in office for years, but that if she made a commitment to resign she could win a second vote.
For now, there remain enough Brexiteer rebels to prevent the deal from passing, with hardline MPs emboldened by the belief that the closer they get to March 29, the more likely it is that they can achieve what they are calling a “no-deal by stealth”.
Some Brexiteers are relaxed about May delaying the vote again, believing another deferral increases the chances of their preferred no-deal Brexit and means there is less time for Remain supporters to secure a second referendum.
There is an increasing belief among prominent Eurosceptics that if May fails to get her deal through the Commons, she would prefer a no-deal Brexit to a second referendum or general election. The veteran Brexiteer Peter Lilley is expected to publish a new paper in support of no-deal at the weekend.
Putting on a Northern Irish accent, a senior member of the ERG told BuzzFeed News: “No surrender,” confirming they had been told by the DUP that their MPs would also not support the deal unless it includes a unilateral break clause from the backstop.
In a statement on Thursday, DUP deputy leader Nigel Dodds said his party's "principled objections" to the withdrawal agreement remained. Downing Street had sought to “unlock” the votes of Tory Brexiteers by winning over the DUP.
May plans to unveil next week what she hopes will be a legally binding guarantee from Brussels that the backstop insurance policy is temporary.
But an ERG MP insisted only significant changes to the withdrawal agreement would win them round. The MP said Brexiteers would demand the publication of the government’s legal advice on any new document, or work with Labour to force its release. A Labour source said any new legal advice would be covered by November’s humble address motion and has to be published.
“Number 10 will try to sell it as a game-changer but the legal advice will sink it,” the ERG MP predicted. They added that the group planned to compare any guarantee that falls short of a break clause to Neville Chamberlain’s agreement with Hitler in 1938.