It’s probably easiest right now to figure out what is happening on the right wing of the Conservative Party than almost anything else. They look strong but they are actually now significantly weaker. Their intellectual position is clear because there is a genuine theoretical logic behind arguing that all will eventually be fine if we just go for the hardest of Brexits. Their weakness is twofold. Firstly what they are proposing will cause so much immediate pain to so many British people that they will never be forgiven if it comes to pass. Secondly, they have overplayed their hand and May has finally called their bluff. They don’t have the votes to topple her and if they did get rid of her the party would replace her with someone of a very similar ilk. Some of the far right will stick to their rhetoric and vote against her even if it means splitting their party. Others will be talked into abstaining in the hope that May’s compromise will prove unstable and given enough time and patience they might still get their wonderous free trade world.
Then we have the much bigger core of the Parliamentary party. Most of whom campaigned against Brexit and are rightly scared stiff of the consequences for their country, their party and themselves as individual MPs if we crash out without a deal and the Conservative Party takes the blame. They will be loyal to a fault to Theresa May until the day she falls and then loyal to a fault to anyone else who can hold the core of the party together. They will also work long and hard on every individual Conservative MP who might possibly waver to “come on board for the good of the party.” Julian Smith is going to have a lot of help in encouraging colleagues to go through those lobbies and this might just limit the size of the rebellion.
It is unlikely to be enough without allies. Mathematically the only places to look for enough allies are the nationalist parties, the Lib Dems or pro-EU Labour rebels. It is hard to see any of those voting for her deal in any numbers. It is not impossible, however, that something will be offered to one of those groups that is sufficiently attractive for them to abstain and change the mathematics. If I was Theresa May or Julian Smith I’d be very keen to find out what the price of the SNP might be for abstaining.
If that kind of far fetched fantasy politics doesn’t materialise then May loses the vote in Parliament on her deal. What happens then? One serious option is that either she or a fresh leader calls a General Election and appeals above the heads of her own rebels to ask the public to back what she’ll pitch as a “sensible” Brexit from a “safe” pair of hands. She might just win on that ticket. A lot of people remain desperate for a way out that isn’t a total disaster and the narrative that she has been the only person looking out for the interest of the ordinary people under immensely unfair pressure is being heavily spun and resonating with a lot of people. She could also achieve something similar but more temporary by forcing through Parliament a 2nd referendum with only two options on the ballot paper. She wouldn’t be the first politician to use a manipulated choice in a plebiscite to force through a policy. The entire Conservative Party might unite on forcing that choice on us and she wouldn’t need a lot more votes.
Few of her opponents are properly prepared for such eventualities but Labour does claim to be prepared and ready for a General Election. Such a stance is making their immediate tactical choices pretty simple but leaving them badly exposed in the more medium term. All they have to do right now is to keep pointing out the weaknesses in the deal and the dangers of hard Brexit and to stick to their efforts of trying to vote the deal down. Their problems begin the moment May’s deal is voted down in Parliament. At that point they have to offer something better that is actually plausible.
The current party line is that they are so much more competent than her that they could negotiate something better in weeks. That is a good sound bite. It has just one small flaw. It is complete nonsense and quite a lot of people realise that. May’s government didn’t fail to strike a wonderful exit deal because they were lazy, incompetent, divided, inconsistent and wrongheaded. They were all of those things but that’s not why they failed. What really did for them was the impossible logic of reality. You can’t have all the benefits of belonging to the EU and be out of it. If you want easy trade over the Irish border and you want to carry on selling to the UK’s biggest market without tariffs or paperwork then you have to follow EU rules. Otherwise you have a massive competitive advantage which the EU will never be stupid enough to agree to. And if you are out of the EU but following laws your citizens no longer have a chance to shape then you have to have something very similar to May’s deal. There isn’t a “have cake and eat it” option. The choices are either crash out, remain or May’s deal.
Will UK voters be naïve enough to believe that after two years of hard negotiations the EU will even begin to discuss ripping up what is already on the table and starting to negotiate afresh on Corbyn’s new and better deal? If so how patient will they be when Labour gets itself tangled up in very similar problems to the Conservatives and with equally bitter splits? That leaves Corbyn horribly at risk. He is basing his hopes of winning the election on the Conservative party being punished for splits and on no one noticing the inconsistencies and splits in his own party. An effective Conservative leader taking him on using the argument of my deal or his chaos could easily win. Equally it is entirely possible that we will face the bizarre sight of the UK being taken out of the EU by a Labour party elected by millions of people who wanted us to stay in.
A very wide range of outcomes from an election is now possible. The Conservatives could win an increased majority. Labour could win by a landslide against a divided mess of a fallen party. There is also a serious possibility that the outcome will be no overall majority. The LibDems are likely to win several new seats in strongly remain constituencies. Labour is likely to secure their heartlands and some parts of London. Both the Conservatives and Labour may find it hard to win in enough fresh places to reach an outright majority. Particularly when you consider their weaknesses in Scotland, and Wales.
That leaves every prospect of MPs turning down May’s deal with Europe followed by a General Election that fails to produce a clear winner. If I were a far right fantasist I would assume that this would produce my lovely no deal future. If I were a betting man I’d be looking up the odds on the creation of a government of national unity that would delay Brexit for a year and then sign up to something almost identical to May’s deal.
All very messy. All very damaging. Enough to make you wish there was a party that had been campaigning to put the three options to the British public. Like the Green Party for example. After all it is impossible for the electorate to claim that its will has been betrayed if it is the electorate that changes its mind and calls the whole thing off!