No hope of suc­cess and no plan B – but May still won’t blink

The prime minister tried to rally the coun­try – and failed. Now, with even loyal back­benchers un­able to sup­port her, she faces a hu­mil­i­at­ing de­feat on Tues­day

The Observer - - News - Political Ed­i­tor Toby Helm

Two days into the great Brexit de­bate, a Tory MP called Sir Robert Syms rose to his feet to ad­dress the House of Com­mons. Syms is not es­pe­cially well known out­side his con­stituency of Poole in Dorset and in nor­mal times stays loyal. But at 6.40pm on Wed­nes­day, with few MPs re­main­ing in the cham­ber, the un­sung 62-yearold an­nounced with a heavy heart that he could not back the prime minister over her Brexit deal.

“I am un­happy about vot­ing against my gov­ern­ment,” he de­clared. “I have been a mem­ber of parliament for more than 20 years. Since com­ing into gov­ern­ment in 2010, I have voted against the gov­ern­ment only once. This will be the sec­ond time. I hope that I never have to do it again be­cause I be­lieve that pol­i­tics is a team game and I want my team to win and I want the prime minister to do the best for our na­tion. Un­for­tu­nately, though, I am a Con­ser­va­tive and union­ist, and the back­stop is some­thing that I can­not ac­cept.”

For sev­eral weeks Theresa May has been hold­ing pri­vate meetings in Down­ing Street and the Com­mons with MPs like Syms. She has used all her pow­ers of per­sua­sion to try to win them around ahead of Tues­day’s his­toric “mean­ing­ful vote” on her deal.

Tory whips have tried to ca­jole their wa­ver­ing back­benchers day and night, ar­gu­ing the case for the May deal and re­mind­ing the more am­bi­tious among them where their best ca­reer in­ter­ests lie. Two weeks ago May made the cam­paign a na­tional one – writ­ing di­rectly to the peo­ple of Bri­tain and ask­ing them to put more pres­sure on their MPs to sup­port her.

A spe­cial Tory web­site called Back the Brexit Deal was launched by the party to rally grass­roots Tories be­hind the cause, with lim­ited suc­cess. Con­stituency chair­men were lob­bied heav­ily, too.

Omi­nously for the prime minister, how­ever, the ul­tra-hard sell has achieved al­most noth­ing. Some Tories even think it has had the re­v­erse ef­fect to that in­tended – mak­ing peo­ple fo­cus in more de­tail on her deal than they would have done, only for them to con­clude they could never back it.

One se­nior Con­ser­va­tive said the party machine had de­ployed ev­ery re­source it could muster but had failed to­tally. “Whether it is our back­benchers, or the party faith­ful, or the pub­lic, it is the same. If any­thing, I think the whole ‘go­ing to the coun­try thing’ has made things worse.”

By this week­end more than 100 back­bench Tory MPs had de­clared them­selves ready to vote against May’s deal. Sur­veys of Tory members show they are against, too, by a big ma­jor­ity.

Af­ter a dread­ful week in which May’s gov­ern­ment was found to be in con­tempt of parliament for re­fus­ing to pub­lish the full le­gal ad­vice on Brexit, the chief whip, Ju­lian Smith, has been telling No 10 that it is on course for a huge de­feat.

Some cabi­net min­is­ters still loyal to the prime minister fear she will strug­gle to sur­vive the hu­mil­i­a­tion of a three-fig­ure loss on the most im­por­tant is­sue to have faced parliament in decades, and are plead­ing with her to come up with a plan B to avoid total

hu­mil­i­a­tion – or to buy time by de­lay­ing the vote. But they seem to have no idea of what she can do that would swing enough hard­line Tory op­po­nents of her plan be­hind it at the eleventh hour.

The EU, mean­while, in­sists the deal can­not be mod­i­fied. Brus­sels says any at­tempt by the UK to seek sub­stan­tive changes over the back­stop or any­thing else at an EU sum­mit in Brus­sels this week will be fu­tile.

More ju­nior members of the gov­ern­ment are ru­moured to be ready to quit be­fore Tues­day be­cause they can’t live with the deal as it is.

With two days to go, there is no sign May that is ready to de­lay, change course or blink at all. One se­nior Tory said: “If she has a plan B, no one knows what it could be. It looks like a cri­sis with no so­lu­tion. She seems to march on into the gun­fire.”

Labour is keen to make out that Tues­day’s vote will be tighter than ev­ery­one ex­pects. It is des­per­ate to pro­mote this view in case May lim­its a de­feat to far less than 100. If she did that she might just be able to take some com­fort and ar­gue to Brus­sels that with some ex­tra con­ces­sions in her pocket she could take an im­proved deal back to the Com­mons be­fore Christ­mas and get it through sec­ond time around.

But with all but a hand­ful of the 257 Labour MPs, the en­tire block of 35 SNP members, all but one of the 11 Lib­eral Democrats, and the 10 DUP members set to vote against it – and more than 100 Tories on record as be­ing op­posed – the arith­metic points to a far worse out­come for the prime minister.

To­day there is yet more bad news for May as the all-party Com­mons se­lect com­mit­tee on Brexit pub­lishes a re­port on her deal, unan­i­mously agreed by members, in­clud­ing its 10 Con­ser­va­tive MPs, which con­cludes that af­ter 20 months of ne­go­ti­a­tions it “fails to of­fer suf­fi­cient clar­ity or cer­tainty about the fu­ture”. It adds: “There are no re­al­is­tic, long-term pro­pos­als from the gov­ern­ment to rec­on­cile main­tain­ing an open bor­der on the is­land of Ire­land with leav­ing the sin­gle mar­ket and cus­toms union.

“While the com­mit­tee’s role is not to ad­vise MPs how to vote, the tone of its con­clu­sions pro­vides a snap­shot of in­formed cross-party par­lia­men­tary opin­ion.” Its chair­man, Labour’s Hi­lary Benn, says the deal “would rep­re­sent a huge step into the un­known”.

In July 1993 John Ma­jor lost a vote on the Maas­tricht treaty by just eight votes and then called a vote of con­fi­dence of the House. It is a mea­sure of the cri­sis en­gulf­ing the prime minister and the coun­try more than 25 years on that a de­feat on that scale on May’s tor­tu­ously ne­go­ti­ated deal for leav­ing the EU would be re­garded by ev­ery­one in Down­ing Street as a tri­umph be­yond their wildest dreams.

Few things were look­ing up for Theresa May as she switched on No 10’s Christ­mas lights. Pho­to­graph by Ben Stansall/AFP

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