B.O.Bs v P.A.Ms

It’s the Bored of Brexits versus People against May, as she seeks to snoreathon her way to victory – by persuading MPs that voters have simply had enough.

Once purdah was over, the Remain and Leave campaigns boxed, during the EU referendum campaign, on more or less even terms.  The primary emotions they aimed to stir were fear and anger respectively: anger with Brussels; fear of leaving.  This balance of argument was reflected in the TV debates, in which the mutual stars of both sides were pitched against each other, and to which we will return later today.

The fortnight or so between now and the “meaningful vote” will be nothing like that.  The Prime Minister still commands the bully pulpit of Downing Street, but there will be no Vote Leave or Britain Stronger in Europe campaign to oppose her.  So what is she up to, since there is no referendum on her proposals, and voters have no direct say on them?

The answer is that she hopes to collapse the present majority of MPs against her plan by means of pressure from their constituents.  We are sceptical of claims that almost 100 Conservative MPs are committed to vote against it.  But there can be no doubt that at least 50 are on record as saying they won’t support it.

Add that total to the opposition parties, and Theresa May is up against it.  Furthermore, the evidence suggests that voters have not yet got their heads around her agreement.  According to Lord Ashcroft’s polling, voters “were slightly more likely than not to say they thought the agreement was better than leaving the EU with no deal”.  But “by a 20-point margin, voters as a whole said MPs should “vote to reject the agreement, even if it is not clear what the outcome would then be”.

In some ways, her strategy will clearly be Project Fear Revisited.  There will be apocalyptic forecasts of economic collapse if the deal is rejected.  The Government will surely try to slice and dice these for individual constituencies, and contrast them against claims of higher living standards if the deal goes through Parliament.  But voters have seen Project Fear discredited once, with its warnings of an immediate recession and 500,00 unemployed, and are likely to treat it, second time round, with even more cynicism than before.

However, the Prime Minister has a new card to play.  “The British people don’t want to spend any more time arguing about Brexit,” she said yesterday.  This is the heart of her pitch.  Not an attempt to sell the merits of the agreement, such as they are; but rather, the exploitation of Brexit war-weariness.  “Enough is enough.”  “Get it all over with.”  “Let’s move on.”  “People are sick and tired of it.”  You can see the emotional core of the “campaign”, as May labelled it yesterday, beginning to take shape.  She aims to bore her way to victory.

The Prime Minister is trying to assemble a broad coalition big enough to turn MPs round.  It will include Leavers who think she’s done enough, and who fear No Brexit if her plan fails.  To this audience, May will stress immigration control.  A big slice of it is in Labour-held midlands and northern seats.  It will also take in Remainers who respect the referendum result, and fear No Deal if the deal falls.  To these people, May will push her economic pitch.  Quite a bit of it is in the bluer south-east, plus London.

Above all, the Prime Minister will speak to the unengaged punter who has had enough of the whole business.  These are what Jeremy Hunt yesterday nicknamed B.O.Bs – those Bored with Brexit.  Downing Street will try to paint a picture of a dogged, moderate, determined woman, acting in the national interest, opposed by a band of selfish, opportunistic, Eton-educated men, crazed by fanaticism and (we predict) misogyny.  This message will be projected hard to this audience, and to those Tory members whose instinct is to follow their leader.

Against it will be set another coalition.  It will take in Remainers who want a second referendum, and want to see May’s plan voted down so they can get it; Leavers who hate its central feature – that the UK will be tied to it without a guaranteed means of escape – and would rather risk no deal; Conservative members who don’t like the look of it, and feel ignored and patronised by successive party leaders; Labour activists manoeuvering for a general election; the DUP; the UKIP remnant; Nicola Sturgeon.

Up for play is the biggest group of voters of all – namely, those who treat everything Ministers say with suspicion because they think all politicians are liars.  The Prime Minister will find this demographic to be particularly hard work.  All in all, against the B.O.Bs, the Bored of Brexits, will be set the P.A.Ms – People against May, of which there are rather a lot.  A prize for the first ConservativeHome reader who spots a Government Minister suggesting that Vladimir Putin is actively engaged in bringing the deal down.

Talking of leaders abroad, one group of people we will presumably hear nothing very much from are the Commission plus the EU27: Jean-Claude Juncker, Angela Merkel, Martin Selmayr, and so on.  But this is to fail to take account of Emmanuel Macron, who has helpfully pointed out that the EU expects its access to Britain’s fish to continue post-deal.  Take that, David Mundell!

The essence of the case against the agreement is that no country should sign up to a deal it isn’t free to leave; that this one would dynamite the independent trade policy that should be part of Brexit – and that the package threatens the stability of the UK.  This time round, there is no Dominic Cummings to weaponise it.  Party members will be torn between respect for the leader and dislike of the deal.

So the disparate coalition that opposes the deal has little time to weld itself into a coherent force.  Andrew Adonis must somehow find a way of co-ordinating with Boris Johnson, and vice-versa (a tall order).  It’s B.O.Bs v P.A.Ms – and in between them, the 650 or so people who will decide.

Iain Dale: The Prime Minister put in a superb Parliamentary performance yesterday

Plus: But her deal’s so bad I’d rather Remain. Robbins is the real Rasputin, not Timothy. Would I really vote Tory tomorrow? And: Carry on Cocks and Dicks.

Iain Dale is an LBC presenter, a commentator with CNN and the author/editor of over 30 books.

I’m not angry: I’m just overwhelmed by a feeling of sadness that it’s come to this. It didn’t have to be this way.

I’m convinced that if Nick Timothy was still Theresa May’s chief adviser, things would have been very different. Instead, Olly Robbins replaced him in the Prime ministerial affections game, and we know the result.

Oops, how every dare I criticise a civil servant! The very thought. Well, I’m sorry: this Rasputin-like figure has more of a hold over the Prime Minister than Alan Walters had over Mrs Thatcher, or Peter Mandelson over Tony Blair.

She’s believed his every utterance or piece of advice over Brexit strategy even though, time and time again, he’s proved to have been disastrously wrong. On each occasion, it has resulted in yet another humiliating capitulation. When the rue history of this period is written, Robbins will not come out of it well.

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On Wednesday, I wrote on my blog explaining why I thought the Brexit deal hatched between Theresa May and the EU was just about the worst result possible.

Indeed, so bad is it that if I had to choose between remaining in the EU and voting for this abortion of a deal, I would vote to Remain. I don’t resile from my Brexit vote, or the firm belief that we are better off out – but the trouble is, we won’t be out if this deal gets through.

For the avoidance of doubt, let me put on the record once again that no deal is preferable to a bad deal, and that this is the very worst deal. No deal is not an ideal option either, but at least we’d be master of our own destinies.

Yes, I accept that there would be some short-term issues to get over – but get over them we undoubtedly would. Instead May thinks that we should accept European rules with no say in their drafting. Any fool can see the dangers in that, and it is the direct opposite of ‘taking back control’.

So when the deal comes to the Commons, I hope it is decisively rejected. And I say that in the full knowledge that the Prime Minister would undoubtedly have to resign immediately. There’s no way she could survive it.

Having said that, she does have a remarkable ability to endure the impossible. But this time I think she’s bitten off too much. It takes a special talent to unite Andrew Adonis and Jacob Rees-Mogg, but by God she’s achieved it. It will be something she will live to regret, I suspect.

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I’m completing this diary early on Thursday afternoon. So far, there have been six resignations but by the time you read this I suspect there will have been more.

If Penny Mordaunt, Andrea Leadsom, Liam Fox and Michael Gove aren’t seriously considering their positions, I am not quite sure what kind of backbone they think they have.

Dominic Raab has now got first mover advantage, and has instantly transformed himself into a frontline leadership candidate.

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I have to say that May put in a superb parliamentary performance yesterday. Having to stand up on your hind legs when you’ve just had two cabinet ministers resign can’t have been easy. And to take questions for two and a half hours is something that few other leaders across the world would ever have to do. Credit to her for coming through it with aplomb.

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This week, I feel a bit of a fraud writing for ConservativeHome. For the first time in a very long time, I do wonder if I could support the Conservative Party in a general election were it held tomorrow. If it were a snap election held on the basis of endorsing Theresa May’s Brexit deal, I don’t think that I could.

But here’s the dilemma. Who else could I vote for? Certainly not Labour, definitely not the Liberal Democrats, absolutely not UKIP, whose leadership I abhor with every fibre of my being.

The Greens? Another lot of pro-European zealots. But I don’t really believe in spoiling my ballot paper, either. And this is why I rarely believe people who say after some Conservative disaster or another, “I’ll never vote Tory again”. Time heals and most people go back to their normal political home.

May had better hope there really are four years between now and the next election. Many people will have forgiven the party for this Horlicks of a Brexit deal by then…but it’s entirely possible that this open wound won’t have healed by then, either.

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Last week I told the tale of Cox, Dicks and Willy. However, according to a senior cabinet minister who texted me having read it, I missed out the best story.

Terry Dicks, John McDonnell’s predecessor as MP for Hayes & Harlington, used to tell a story about a public meeting in the 1979 election when he was standing against Michael Cocks, the Labour Chief Whip in Bristol.

According to Terry, the well-spoken woman in the chair concluded the meeting with the words: “Well ladies, there you have it. Your choice is between Cocks and Dicks”. For some of us, it was ever thus…