IT TAKES A lot to unite the House of Commons in these fevered times. But Theresa May seems to have pulled it off. When she presented her Brexit deal to a packed House on November 26th, MPs of every shade of opinion rose up to denounce her. Jacob Rees-Mogg, the head of the hardline Brexiteers, and Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the Labour Party, could at last agree that this was a pig’s ear of a deal, and a sell-out to boot.
Mrs May will spend the next two weeks in something akin to election mode, trying to flip Parliament. She will repeat her theme that hers is the best deal available. She will tour the country trying to get voters to keep their MPs in line. She will jawbone businesspeople to get behind her plan. And she and Mr Corbyn have agreed in principle to hold a televised debate on the proposal, though the details are still being thrashed out.
Is she wasting her time? The consensus in the Westminster village is that she doesn’t have a snowball’s chance in hell of getting her deal through. The opposition is much wider and deeper than almost anybody—and certainly Downing Street—had anticipated. Everybody expects the likes of Iain Duncan Smith to make trouble: that is his raison d’être. But the government was taken aback when Sir Michael Fallon, a former defence secretary and loyal party man, declared that the deal was “doomed”. To add to Mrs May’s problems, President Donald Trump has warned that her deal may stop America signing a free-trade agreement with Britain, and Emmanuel Macron has said that it will provide France with “leverage” in future negotiations.
The Westminster village is right on one thing: Mrs May’s deal is almost certain to fail on the first attempt. But that will not necessarily be the end of it. The great question is how badly it flops, for that will determine whether Mrs May can then turn defeat into victory. If she fails miserably, say by more than 100 votes, it will all be over, perhaps for Mrs May as well as for her deal. But if she fails respectably—badly enough to worry the markets, but well enough to keep her job—she will have a chance of saving the situation. She will be able to go back to negotiators in Brussels to plead for some minor tweaks, return to a panicking House of Commons for a second vote and, with luck, salvage her deal.
The fear among senior Tories is that Mrs May’s campaign to sell her deal will be a repeat of the 2017 general election. The Maybot will keep repeating the same stock phrases—this time “smooth and orderly” rather than “strong and stable”—while the opposition gains momentum. But there is also a possibility that this will be the general election in reverse. Mrs May began the 2017 campaign with inflated expectations and underperformed. This time she is starting with rock-bottom expectations and can only improve. In the general election she didn’t know what she was selling—stable continuity or radical change to tackle the problems revealed by Brexit. This time Mrs May believes what she is saying and is on top of every detail.
Mrs May could prove to be a better saleswoman than people expect. Her recent performances at the dispatch box have been the best of her career. She not only has fire in her belly, but also a withering contempt for the likes of Boris Johnson, who can’t be bothered to come up with anything more than fatuous slogans. The prime minister may not have the gift of charisma. But she does have character: a high sense of duty and a willingness to endure any pain in order to perform that duty. The world is dominated by irresponsible populists who are whipping up resentments, and irresponsible elitists who are ignoring discontent. Mrs May is that rare thing: a responsible leader who is trying to deal with populist anxieties rather than exploit them.
In that vein, her deal has more to recommend it than the Westminster village imagines. It achieves the single biggest thing that Leave voters wanted: abolishing free movement between Britain and the European Union. It also provides a lot of the smaller things that drove the Leave vote, ending big payments to Brussels, albeit slowly, limiting the power of the European Court of Justice and quitting the EU’s agricultural and fisheries policies.
Mrs May’s biggest advantage when it comes to building support is that there is no easy alternative. The most precious resource for dealmaking—time—is running out. There is some momentum behind the “Norway option” of joining the European Economic Area. But that would mean continuing free movement. There is even more momentum behind the idea of a second referendum. But whatever the merits of such a vote, it would prove painful in the short term, as the country relived the debates of 2016. A growing number of Tories are contemplating replacing Mrs May as leader. But is it really worth trashing the Conservative brand still further when that only increases the likelihood of a far-left government under Mr Corbyn? And is it really worth risking such a leadership contest when Mrs May’s successor—Sajid Javid, say, or Jeremy Hunt—would inherit exactly the same problems in Brussels?
Oh no, not I
The election-in-reverse hypothesis, in which Mrs May exceeds expectations and her deal survives, might quickly prove to be hopelessly naive. There is a madness in the air in Westminster at the moment that makes all predictions suspect. MPs may well be so convinced that she is doomed in the first round that they vote against her en masse. That might produce such a devastating defeat that Mrs May has no choice but to resign, and unleash political mayhem. There is a chance that Mr Corbyn will at last come out in favour of a second referendum. That would rescramble not only the Brexit debate but also British political alignments. Nonetheless, it would be a mistake to write off Mrs May’s Brexit plan completely. She has shown many times in the past that she has an extraordinary ability to turn weakness into strength, and humiliation into not quite triumph, but at least survival.