How Dublin ran rings round May on Brexit and the Northern Ireland border

Tony Connelly describes in painful detail the success of Irish negotiators in aligning themselves with the EU27, while leaving the Brits to flounder.

Brexit and Ireland: The Dangers, the Opportunities, and the Inside Story of the Irish Response by Tony Connelly

Boris Johnson expressed enthusiasm for this book when interviewed the other day by ConHome, though I have just listened to the tape again, and find he must have done so after I turned it off.

We were discussing how much better prepared ministers and officials in Dublin were for Brexit than their opposite numbers in London.

Connelly, who lives in Brussels and has been reporting on Europe for RTE for the last 17 years, unfortunately provides ample evidence for this view. The Irish knew the referendum held on 23rd June 2016 could go either way and prepared accordingly.

I recall hearing a lucid and persuasive speech by Dan Mulhall, then Irish Ambassador in London, now their man in Washington, at an Irish Embassy reception, in which he outlined the devastating effects which Brexit could have not only on the Irish economy, but on relations between the Republic and the United Kingdom, including Northern Ireland.

It was plain then that there was a conservative, or Burkean, case for remaining in the EU, as an imperfect accretion of laws and customs which although impossible to defend in strict democratic theory, were in some ways well adapted to the circumstances of Irish and British politics.

At the start of Connelly’s account, the Irish Prime Minister, Enda Kenny, tries to warn David Cameron that

“referendums are different to general elections. People don’t fear the consequences of a general election. We have some experience of this kind of thing.”

Dublin had a few years before held a second referendum on the Lisbon Treaty in order to undo the rejection of it in the first. Micheal Martin, the Leader of Fianna Fail, who ran the campaign in the second referendum, says they learned a lot from their exhaustive research into what went wrong first time round, and realised the message now had to be:

“We’ve heard you, we’ve listened to you, we’ve done the changes because of your message.”

It is not clear the advocates of a second referendum on this side of the Irish Sea have realised they need a message like that. If they are not careful, they will be found to be telling the British people, “We have not listened to you, and consider you to be a lot of ignorant fools who had better now do exactly as we tell you.”

After the British voted for Brexit, Irish ministers became frustrated by jockeying in London between Boris Johnson, Liam Fox and David Davis, and the consequent inability to determine the British Government’s position:

“Worse than the jockeying was the fact that they had different messages. That was of no use to us. We were trying to establish what exactly they wanted.”

There had been no preparatory analysis in London of the problems Brexit would pose and the choices which would need to be made. Nor did Irish leaders find, when they met Theresa May, that she was communicative. “She was very, very cautious,” as an Irish official puts it.

At the outset, the Irish expected to solve some difficulties through bilateral talks with the British Government, and others by negotiating as part of the EU 27 with London. But by the end of 2016, as Connelly relates,

“The Irish government was realising that if Irish and European Commission officials were working away diligently, scoping out technical solutions, looking at ways of getting around customs checks and requirements regarding animal health, food safety and rules of origin as a way to soften the Irish border, then the main beneficiary was the UK.

“Having come to this realisation, the Irish undertook a subtle distancing from London. It began at the end of 2016 and was increasingly discernible in the first part of 2017.”

The Irish stopped trying to solve the British Government’s problems, notably over the Northern Ireland border, and instead aligned themselves completely with the EU 27. As Connelly puts it,

“There would be two steps: fully apprising the EU of the complexities of the Northern Ireland peace process, and then turning the Irish position into the European position.”

Michel Barnier already has considerable experience of the complexities of Northern Ireland politics, for as an EU Commissioner he oversaw between 1999 and 2004 “the spending of 531 million euros in EU funding for Northern Ireland under the PEACE II programme, as well as tens of millions of euros in regional and structural payments”.

The EU became a kind of imperial power (not a word used by Connelly), more trusted, or at least more accepted, because it was more remote, and seemed therefore more neutral. Barnier sees himself as a benevolent proconsul: “He spoke fondly about the 13 million euro Peace Bridge in Derry, part funded by Brussels.”

The Irish are brilliant at manipulating the imperial power, while the British, having quite recently been an imperial power themselves, are enraged by its claim of ultimate authority, and have voted to liberate themselves. How one wishes the late lamented T.E.Utley, blind seer of The Daily Telegraph, could bring his wisdom to bear on these paradoxes. Who now in the London press has any understanding of, let alone sympathy with, Ulster Unionism in its various manifestations?

In Brussels, the Irish lobbied Barnier’s Task Force intensively. As a source tells Connelly,

“The Irish had privileged access… For other stakeholders the criteria had to be that it was a pan-European association… The Irish came well prepared, and with a wish-list. They were impressively well prepared… A number of them could have worked for the Task Force straight away.”

The Irish had done their homework, and knew what they wanted. The British had not done their homework, appeared to want to have their cake and eat it, and found themselves steered towards the major problem which emerged in November 2017, when they were told that in order to avoid a hard border, Northern Ireland will have to remain de facto inside the single market and the customs union.

Connelly’s book is almost 400 pages long, first appeared in 2017 and was updated in May this year. It contains some vivid reporting about the threat posed by Brexit to the Irish beef, lamb, milk, cheese, fish, mushroom, duck and racing industries. For the general reader, it contains too much.

From September 2017, “gruelling sessions” were held in Brussels to examine how the 142 different dimensions to North-South co-operation on the island of Ireland relate, if at all, to EU law. Even to read about this stuff is quite gruelling. As a reporter, one has to get to grips with at least some of the detail, then cultivate people who are prepared to tell one what it all means, and Connelly clearly has an admirable range of Irish and Brussels sources.

For the British reader, it is painful to be reminded at such length that under May’s insultingly opaque leadership, our Government has never worked out how to operate as a team, for a long time did not get to grips with the detail, and then did not realise what it meant, or at least refused to be candid about what it meant, until very late in the day, and is in many ways not being candid now.

The trouble with not being candid with the wider world is that there is then a temptation not even to be candid with oneself.

Shailesh Vara: This Better Deal would solve the backstop problem

Our plan is supported by remainers like me, by leavers such as David Davis and Dominic Raab and, crucially, by the DUP.

Shailesh Vara is a former Northern Ireland Minister, and is MP for North West Cambridgeshire.

I voted to remain in the EUU referendum, but I believe the largest ever public mandate should be respected. Parliament should deliver what the people wanted and that is to leave the European Union. In so doing, it is important that we get the very best deal possible.

The current Withdrawal Agreement is clearly unsatisfactory, and that is why I resigned from my ministerial post in the Northern Ireland Office. The bedrock of dissent has been about the backstop.

It strikes at our nation’s soul and imperils our Union by treating Northern Ireland differently to the rest of the UK. If we signed up to it, we would be trapped under the thumb of the EU as its satellite, obeying its laws without a say, unless the EU and its members gave permission for us to leave.

The backstop would place the UK in a “single customs territory”, causing two fundamental problems for our post-Brexit trading relationships. 

First, it would stop us from being able to strike trade deals with non-EU countries, as it would bar us from controlling our tariffs and regulations. Without control in these areas, we would be useless to any prospective trading partner.

Second, with regard to the UK-EU trading relationship, the backstop would create a climate which lends itself to continued EU belligerence. The EU would have no incentive to make concessions in future trade negotiations. 

Once member states have the ability to wield the threat of plunging us into the backstop – and keeping us there indefinitely – we will have no alternative but to make concessions we don’t want to. The Spanish could use Gibraltar as a bargaining chip and the French could demand continued access by EU boats to UK fishing waters.  We can’t possibly let the backstop hold our future trade talks hostage in this way.

So we need a new approach – A Better Deal – and that what’s been published by a team of legal and customs experts. It is supported by remainers like me, by leavers such as David Davis and Dominic Raab and crucially, the DUP. It doesn’t throw out the Prime Minister’s plan. Indeed, it retains the vast majority of the draft Withdrawal Agreement, whilst identifying and removing the poison pills that have prevented it from finding cross-party support.

A Better Deal provides the Government with an alternative vision to present to Brussels.  It is likely to command support in Parliament, closely resembles the offer made by the EU itself last March and honours the referendum result.

Our proposal would restore – rather than destroy – the UK’s leverage for future trade talks with the EU. It safeguards the integrity of the United Kingdom, since it doesn’t treat Northern Ireland differently to the rest of the UK, and it would allow us to be a credible trade partner for third countries after 29th March 2019.

A Better Deal bins the divisive and ill-thought-through Northern Ireland Protocol and replaces it with an extendable backstop. The new backstop would allow us to control our own tariff schedules and regulations – so it’s not an inherently negative situation for the UK to be in. 

In fact, some may even argue that under our proposal the backstop becomes a “front stop” – and for that reason, no EU country could use it to cajole us into having to agree to a set of appalling terms from Brussels which would let British consumers and businesses down.

The new backstop would provide for tariff-free trade in goods; it would bring about regulatory cooperation between us and the EU as well as regulatory recognition based on “deemed equivalence” – making use of the unique fact that our regulations will be identical on day one of Brexit.

This new and reformed backstop include an agreement to deploy advanced customs and trade facilitation measures, including any specific measures necessary for the Northern Ireland/Ireland border, in addition to normal, free trade agreement-style level playing field provisions on labour, the environment, competition and state aid – unlike the hugely one-sided commitments in the Withdrawal Agreement.  And importantly, it will include a commitment by all parties not to place infrastructure on the border – nobody wants to see that.

Brussels wants to do a deal with us. They offered us a free trade deal back in March, and I suspect that the EU negotiators have been surprised at our inability to grab what is on offer. 

We have a chance to put our future prosperity in our hands as we become a great, self-governing, free trading nation once again. The proposals in A Better Deal will, I believe, meet with the approval of many of my colleagues in Parliament as well as the public. It stays loyal to the Belfast Agreement, avoids a hard border and allows us to leave the arrangement, should we wish to do so. The UK is crying out for a better deal.  Let’s make sure we deliver it.

Andrew Gimson’s Commons sketch: May provokes derisive laughter and has exhausted the House’s patience

The Prime Minister looked like a straight actor who is appearing in a Christmas pantomime, in order to become the butt of everyone else’s jokes.

The laughter began as the Prime Minister got half-way through her third sentence.  “I’ve listened very carefully to what has been said in this Chamber,” she said, and a roar of derision went up from the Opposition benches.

It was the sort of applause some ridiculous figure in a pantomime might receive. And the unhappy fact was that the Prime Minister did look ridiculous.

Having led the way forward to the meaningful vote wlth every appearance of confidence, and sent her ministers out this morning to assure the world that the Government was still marching forwards, here she was announcing that she was instead leading the way back to Brussels, in search of further “assurances”.

Sir Oliver Letwin (Con, West Dorset) praised “the dignity and perseverance” she has shown, and many sympathetic looks were directed at her amid the mockery she endured.

But the truth was that her position was utterly undignified, for she had realised at the eleventh hour that she could not persevere, because the Commons will not accept her deal.

So she had to exercise that most difficult and inadvisable manoeuvre, a retreat in full view of the enemy, with a hail of misslles raining down on her from every direction.

She tried one of her favourite double negatives, to which she has so often resorted in recent weeks: “There is no deal available that does not include the backstop.” And she insisted the challenge of the Northern Ireland border must be met “not with rhetoric” – a plain hit at the more flowery speakers among the Eurosceptics on her own benches – “but with real and workable solutions”.

But her own solution has just been shown to be unworkable. Theresa May did not have a leg to stand on, and the House could see she did not have a leg to stand on, and the more she tried to insist she did have a leg to stand on, the more she sounded like a straight actor who is currently appearing in a Christmas pantomime, in order to become the butt of everyone else’s jokes.

The Chief Whip, Julian Smith, entered the Chamber a few minutes late, looking like a mourner at a funeral who has encountered unexpected delays on the way to the church.

There was a tremor in the Prime Minister’s voice as she spoke one of her favourite clichés, “I am clear”, but she kept bravely on. One suspects  it is kindness, as shown by that very perfect gentle knight Sir Oliver, which would come closest to reducing her to tears.

Bravely but unconvincingly she insisted that hers is “the very best deal that is actually negotiable with the EU” – the quintessence of the Establishment view, but the Establishment is losing control.

“Does the House want to deliver Brexit?” she demanded. “No!” the Scots Nats shouted.

And quite a lot of MPs on both sides of the House agree with the Nats. Numerous pleas were made for a second referendum as a means of wriggling out of Brexit.

Jeremy Corbyn said “the Government has lost control of events and is in complete disarray”. Things have come to a pretty pass when one finds oneself agreeing with him.

He told her that if she is just going to bring back “the same botched deal” then “she must give way”.

The Speaker, John Bercow, inflicted the torment on her of a lecture about manners. He said that to kill off the debate after no fewer than 164 MPs had spoken was “deeply discourteous”, and lectured her about how she should proceed.

The Prime Minister looked like a deeply upset yet inwardly recalcitrant schoolgirl, who feels herself unjustly accused of  breaking the school rules. The Chief Whip lent over and said something to her. It appeared he was rejecting the Speaker’s advice.

Vince Cable, for the Liberal Democrats, said that “after the fiasco today the Government has really lost all authority”, and his party would support a No Confidence motion.

Nigel Dodds, parliamentary leader of the Democratic Unionists, looking white with anger, observed that “this is an impossible position”, and asked: “Does she not get it by now?”

There was altogether a feeling, even among MPs less averse to compromise than Dodds, that May has exhausted everyone’s patience.

The veteran Labour Eurosceptic Dennis Skinner (Lab, Bolsover), traditionally known as the Beast of Bolsover, pointed out with a snarl that Brussels will see she is “very weak” and will humiliate her, in order to set a terrifying example to other countries which might feel tempted to leave the EU.

David Davis, the former Brexit Secretary, asked whether she was going to get “legally enforceable” guarantees about the backstop. He did not get a reply, for legally enforceable guarantees are virtually impossible to obtain from the EU.

Jess Phillips (Lab, Birmingham Yardley) mocked Conservative Eurosceptics “who like to go around calling themselves Aslan”, and contended that whatever May might obtain in Brussels will “make absolutely no difference to these people”. And on that, one suspects, Phillips is right. It is hard to see how May can now satisfy anyone.

Iain Dale: On Newsnight, I erect my Tower of Power

And: For May, there should be no way back from losing. My Tory leadership straw poll. Cox, a man of substance and integrity. Plus, Tower of Power extra: Dick for Iain.

Iain Dale is Presenter of LBC Drive, Managing Director of Biteback Publishing, a columnist and broadcaster and a former Conservative Parliamentary candidate.

We live in momentous times. When I write this column next Friday, Theresa May could not longer be prime minister.

Wednesday next week will be a more interesting day than Tuesday. No-one now expects the Government to win the Brexit deal vote, and the only debate about what will happen is about is the size of the defeat. If the size of the majority against the Government motion is more than 100, it is very difficult to see how the Prime Minister, in all conscience, could stay on. There’s no way back from that, I’d have thought.

But we don’t live in normal times, and we know all about the Prime Minister’s stickability. The Opposition, whatever the size of their win, will no doubt call a vote of confidence. They’d be mad not to. The Government will win it, surely, but it could be a pyrrhic victory.

It must be likely that by midday on Wednesday, Graham Brady will have received the 48 letters needed to force a vote of confidence in May’s leadership. Again, she may well win that vote, mainly because of the absence of a clear alternative leader, but the size of the victory would be crucial. Could she really carry on if more than 100 Tory MPs voted against her? And they surely would.

– – – – – – – – – –

Twitter polls aren’t exactly scientific, and are just a bit of fun, but they do attract large numbers of people to vote.

I put up a poll on Wednesday offering people the choice of Boris Johnson, David Davis, Sajid Javid and Jeremy Hunt as next leader of the Conservative Party. In Twitter polls, you can only offer four choices.

Within 15 hours, nearly 10,000 people had voted. The result? Johnson got 41 per cent, Davis 25 per cent, Javid 21 per cent and Hunt 13 per cent. Make of that what you will.

The important electorate would of course initially be Tory MPs. My guess is that Johnson would not be in the top two. His performance in the Brexit debate this week will hardly have improved his chances.

– – – – – – – – – –

Another senior Conservative whose fortunes have fluctuated this week is the Attorney General, Geoffrey Cox. His bombastic performance at the Dispatch Box on Tuesday led many to speculate that he could be a dark horse candidate for the leadership. And you could see why.

But less than 24 hours later his body language on the front bench was somewhat different, as Andrea Leadsom announced that the government would heed the vote of MPs and publish the Attorney’s legal advice on the Northern Ireland backstop. He looked a broken man and I wondered whether he might be thinking about resigning.

I’m sure he considered it, but he remains in post. And a jolly good thing too. I am sure he has a massive contribution to make to Conservative politics, and despite what happened this week he is still seen as a man of substance and integrity.

– – – – – – – – –

“Hello, it’s Newsnight here – are you free to come on tonight and take part in a panel with a difference?” said the producer. “What’s the difference,” I asked nervously. “Well, we’ve got a Tower of Power and we want you to explain who the most important players are in what’s going on at the moment by pinning them from top to bottom on our model of Big Ben.” “Oh well,” I thought, “at least it’s not a whiteboard”.

So Paul Mason, Bronwen Maddox from the Institute of Government and I did our best to explain to the audience why we thought MPs were now more important in the process than the Cabinet. They had, to coin a phrase, taken back control. Yes, it was a gimmick, but it proved a very good way of explaining with a visual aid, something which is actually quite complicated. I suspect we might be seeing more of the Tower of Power…

– – – – – – – – –

Each day I spend several hours at LBC preparing for my radio show with my two producers. On Tuesday, I got a bit of a surprise when I was flicking through the list of clips and interviews on our computer system: I saw a clip called ‘DICK FOR IAIN’.

“Well this is going to be a different sort of show,” I thought to myself. I was somewhat disappointed to find that it was a clip of the Cressida Dick talking to Nick Ferrari. Oh well.

Drained of authority? Yes. Rudderless? Certainly. Humiliated? Absolutely. But May’s very weakness is becoming a strange strength.

She looks increasingly like the captive of pro-Remain cross-party MPs working together against the pro-Leave referendum mandate.

  • Good news for Julian Smith.  The essence of the Grieve amendment is that it opens up a path to No Brexit.  Very well, the Chief Whip may be tempted to think.  If pro-Leave MPs believe they have a choice between a Grieve-led No Brexit and Theresa May’s flawed deal, they will vote for the latter next Tuesday.  Conspiracy theorists yesterday evening were suggesting that this reasoning explains why loyalists such as Damian Green and Oliver Letwin voted against the Government and for the amendment.
  • But hang on. There’s bad news for Smith.  Steve Baker and the ERG leadership are having none of it.  Let Grieve table and pass as many motions as he likes, they were arguing yesterday: the Government cannot be mandated by motions.  The Prime Minister can and should tell the Remainers to bog off if necessary.  All she and her government need to do is to hang on until March 29, and Brexit will be duly delivered.  So the ERG and other Brexiteers will vote against the Government next week. Smith’s cunning plan won’t work.
  • And there is worse news for him, too.  Perhaps the Grieve amendment will have an effect at the margins on some Leavers.  But Remainers now have an incentive to vote against May next week: to prod the Commons towards No Brexit.  And the ERG and other Leavers have an incentive, too: to keep the pressure up on May for No Deal, if necessary.  So Smith’s clever plan is in danger not only of not working; it threatens to boomerang back to smack the Whips Office in the jaw.
  • But wait. Yes, there’s good news for the Chief Whip after all.  Even if they band together to vote down May’s deal next Tuesday, the aims of the Remainers and Leavers will be different.  In a nutshell, the drift of the Prime Minister’s Brexit policy, over two and a half years, has been from a Nick Timothy-crafted position with clear red lines…through Chequers and the resignations of David Davis and Boris Johnson…to the breaking of those lines over Northern Ireland, transition and the backstop.  The policy is softer than it was.
  • So it is now clearly in the interests of the Remainers to keep May in place.  The lesson that Grieve and company will draw from yesterday is: keep pushing.  Working with Labour and other opposition parties, they can use the pro-Remain sympathies of the Commons to their advantage.  A change of leader would probably mean a new Brexiteer Prime Minister, such as Boris Johnson or Dominic Raab or even David Davis, armed with a mandate to defy No Brexit and deliver No Deal. Why would they want that?
  • And it is not clear that Leavers on the Conservative benches have the numbers to depose her.  Jacob Rees-Mogg and Baker couldn’t find them last month.  It might be that, in the wake of a defeat for May next week, Brexiteers decide that enough is enough, and that elusive total of 48 letters is reached then – or even before.  None the less, it isn’t evident that they have enough support to topple May in a confidence ballot (though Mark Harper’s defection from the loyalist ranks may be a sign that her days are numbered).
  • The swing voters are, as ever, the J.Alfred Prufrocks of the backbenches.  According to our count, 181 Conservative MPs voted Remain in 2016, and 129 voted Leave.  Obviously, the Commons has changed a bit since then.  But the average Tory MP is a soft Remainer or moderate Leaver – perhaps with an eye to the Norway option being pushed by some of Grieve’s supporters yesterday.  (Indeed, his amendment can be seen as a pincer movement on the Prime Minister by a makeshift alliance of Remainers and Norwegians.)
  • What stirs more fear in those backbenchers – No Deal or No Brexit? Do they dread most the undoubted difficulties of No Deal, leading to a collapse of confidence in the Government, the loss of their seats, and a Corbyn-led Government – perhaps sooner rather than later?  Or do they fear No Brexit more – and the revenge of a turbulent electorate, cheated of the prize it voted for, which sends the Conservatives the way of the old Christian Democrats in Italy?  There is no away of knowing.
  • At any rate, May’s very weakness is now a strange strength.  Voted guilty of contempt of Parliament; beaten three times yesterday (the first time a government has been so for some 40 years); staring down the barrel of defeat next week, she now leads the weakest government in modern times.  But this very vulnerability is becoming a strange source of strength – or survival, at any rate.  She hangs on because her party can’t agree on a replacement.  Because while it doesn’t like her plan, it can’t settle on an alternative.
  • Could the Cabinet oust her next week?  Perhaps.  But, as recent events have shown, a Prime Minister can impose a plan on a Cabinet that it doesn’t much care for.  She controls its meetings, proceedings and minutes.  Each of her Ministers has their own ambitions and agendas: they do not find it easy to act in concert.  She has ridden out the resignations of two Brexit Secretaries, a Foreign Secretary and a Work and Pensions Ministers.  And called the bluff of the pizza gang of five Cabinet Leavers.
  • Might she resign if beaten next week?  Maybe.  But if she quits as Party leader, she will open the door to a Brexiteer as her replacement.  And it is not clear whether she could simply resign as Prime Minister.  That would put the Queen in a difficult position.  Would the latter then send for, say, David Lidington, or for Jeremy Corbyn and, in either case, on what basis?  Any such move would be resisted by the Palace.  In any event, Prime Ministers tend not to resign.  The last to go willingly was Harold Wilson, and he was ill.
  • So can May go on…and on…and on? Almost certainly not.  Leavers are losing patience with her.  Remainers are using her.  Any dash from cover risks her swift removal – whatever tactical alliances may form to prop her up temporarily.  A tilt to Norway, No Brexit or No Deal risks stirring up those parts of the Parliamentary Party opposed to all three.  The only glimmer of good news comes from her Party’s right – and the departure of Nigel Farage from a UKIP lurching wildly to the fringes (though she has lost the DUP).
  • Finally, ponder the shape of events.  Voters were narrowly for Leave in 2016.  The Commons is still for Remain: perhaps a sixth of it is for Brexit by conviction rather than calculation.  And the long and short of it is that the more time passes – and the deeper the Government’s crisis becomes – the less MPs pay even lip-service to the biggest event in our electoral history.  The tide in Parliament is for Remain.  It moves slowly – even glacially.  But it is carrying the Prime Minister with it.

Andrew Gimson’s Commons sketch: May’s thin red lines grow thinner, yet she refuses to surrender

And her enemies are divided: can the No Dealers and the People’s Voters combine to defeat her?

“Hard pounding this, gentlemen,” one of Theresa May’s predecessors once said. “Let us see who can pound longest.”

That was the Duke of Wellington at the Battle of Waterloo, and the same grim spectacle is now unfolding in parliamentary form, as befits a great constitutional struggle with an uncertain outcome.

What a bombardment the Prime Minister endured, and as Jacob Rees-Mogg observed, this is the third time in ten days she has done so.

No wonder the combatants look grimmer and more strained than they did at the outset of the battle. It has developed into a war of attrition, in which the Prime Minister is said by expert judges to lack the numbers to prevail, yet in which she refuses to admit defeat.

May’s thin red lines grow thinner, indeed have faded, many of her adversaries would say, into shades of pink so faint they have become indistinguishable from the white flag of surrender which they confidently expect to see raised.

Yet May will not surrender. She continues to proclaim that hers is the only strategy which will work: “I can say to the House with absolute certainty that there is not a better deal available.”

Jeremy Corbyn observed, with some justice, that “the silence from most of the rest of the Cabinet is telling”. It is far from clear that her colleagues are standing shoulder to shoulder with her.

And what a weight of former Cabinet ministers opposed her from her own benches, Iain Duncan Smith, David Davis, Boris Johnson, John Redwood, Michael Fallon and Owen Paterson among them.

But although these are heavy guns to face, none of them seemed, at least to this observer, to score a direct hit. When the debris fell back to earth and the smoke cleared, there she still was, still insisting on her compromise, even though, as Fallon objected, it is a “huge gamble” which guarantees no one what they want.

“In the Prime Minister’s lexicon,” Angela Eagle (Lab, Wallasey) asked, “is smooth and orderly the new strong and stable?”

That shot landed, for as the nation saw during the general election, May is useless at responding to attacks on her addiction to pitifully banal forms of words.

But this is not a general election, and in the present campaign she has the strength of her weakness, which is that her banalities may start to drive her critics to distraction. Mark Francois, deputy chairman of the European Reform Group, warned that the Spanish are after Gibraltar and the French are after our fish, and asserted that May’s deal “will never get through, and even if it did, which it won’t…”

In other words, neither he nor anyone else knows for certain whether she will get her proposed deal through the Commons. It looks bad for her at the moment, and her own supporters this afternoon seemed glummer than they did.

But the great and minor guns which opened up against her were far from united. Can the No Dealers make common cause with the People’s Voters (who incidentally are starting to become insufferably tedious in their own special way) so as to defeat the Prime Minister, or when it comes to it on 11th December, will they be too frightened of playing into each other’s hands?

“Two more weeks of this,” one of my colleagues in the Commons press gallery groaned. Hard pounding, and we shall see who can pound longest.

Lucy Woodcock: By backing a ‘People’s Vote’, May could save the Conservatives

It’s time to set aside the false choice between the Prime Minister’s deal and ‘No Deal’. Young voters are demanding a chance to have their say.

Lucy Woodcock is 26 years old, and originally from Derby. She was President of Bath University Students’ Union in 2016/2017. She is a supporter of For our Future’s Sake and the Conservatives.

In the last general election, I – like far more young people than many would have you believe – voted Conservative. Taking everything into consideration, I genuinely believed that as a party of free minds, free people and free markets, they were the best to deliver on the EU referendum result.

It goes without saying that when Theresa May arrived at Number 10, she was essentially taking a large sip from the poisoned chalice left for her by David Cameron, and had to fasten her seatbelt extra tight for what would undoubtedly be a roller-coaster ride ahead.

With the referendum result so close, she faced a divided country and an incredibly challenging situation. Amidst two years of political chaos, she has worked tirelessly to deliver on the referendum and negotiate Britain’s way out of the EU.

It can’t have been easy, but she has stuck with it. She has been continually let down, as many faltered have around her. The merry men of Brexit, such as Boris Johnson, David Davis, and Dominic Raab have gone, stabbing her in the back and left her wondering who she can really trust. Now this takes some resilience. She has rightly gained the sympathy of the British public for this.

I genuinely believe that this Brexit Deal – which by all accounts makes us poorer, less powerful and prosperous – is the best that May could get. Yet despite all her diligent efforts, the EU Withdrawal Agreement that’s been presented to us is a million miles away from the promises made in 2016, and too many red lines have been crossed.

If the Prime Minister really thinks that following through with this proposed deal is in the best interests of our country, I say it’s time to take off the rose-tinted glasses and stare down the barrel at the reality of what we’re being faced with.

Nobody voted for a deal that would make people poorer, curtail our rights, and limit opportunities. Nobody voted for a deal that would see our public services worse off and further damage the NHS. Nobody voted for a deal that would see us paying a £50 million divorce bill and get nothing in return. Simply put, the deal is disastrous, and we’re not buying it.

And as much as the Conservative Party would like to think otherwise, it’s not just staunch Remainers that think this way. Those on the fence and many who originally supported Leave, have now concluded that this deal is simply not acceptable and that the people deserve a final say.

For months, we’ve been presented with the false binary option that it’s either May’s deal or no deal; a quite frankly feeble attempt to scaremonger and back people into supporting a shoddy deal. But we know that this isn’t the case. There is absolutely another option on the table and that is a People’s Vote.

At a time of national crisis, the Conservative Party has a lot to answer for. There’s been an utter lack of unity; instead we’ve witnessed MPs going rogue, briefing against each other, trying to stage a coup, and selfishly putting their own interests first. The salient image for me was Jacob Rees-Mogg holding his impromptu, self-serving, al-fresco press conference, as if he was the almighty saviour we’ve all been looking for.

Young people like me will never forgive a Conservative Party that sells our futures down the river. And when young people say something, trust me, we mean it. Just look what happened to the Liberal Democrats when they lied to us with tuition fees.

I therefore plead with the Prime Minister. If anything is clear from the madness of the last few days, it’s that there is no majority for her deal in Parliament. It will fall. At that point, a catastrophic No Deal becomes a very scary reality.

Despite this, May is determined to just get on with it. But getting on with it simply isn’t good enough. What happened to the hopes and dreams of a better future for the United Kingdom? As Jo Johnson MP rightly said last week – “how did our aspirations for ourselves as a country fall so far, and so fast?”.

There are thousands – if not millions – of young people like me, who hold the keys to key marginal seats and Downing Street for the Conservative Party. At a time when the Labour Party look like a less than appealing prospect, and most other parties irrelevant, there is a significant opportunity for May.

But only if she stands by the courage of her convictions.

And this is more than high-minded idealism. The reality is that a People’s Vote might be the only thing which keeps the Conservative Party together.

Right now the Conservative Party look like self-serving politicians, climbing over each other to be next in line for the throne. May can rise above that. She can be the Prime Minister who finally gives the British people a clear choice on the biggest political issue of our lifetime.

And if she does that, she may just be the Prime Minister that saves the Conservative Party as well.

Lord Ashcroft: My Brexit poll. It’s good for May…but bad for her deal

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”.

After perhaps her most difficult fortnight as Prime Minister, which is saying something, the news from my latest poll, conducted on Wednesday and Thursday, is surprisingly mixed for Theresa May. Though she would probably say this is a side issue and that she is focused on other things, her personal standing among voters is actually consolidated. She now leads Jeremy Corbyn by 15 points in the best Prime Minister stakes, and while “not sure” still leads the field over both leaders, the proportion naming her has risen while Corbyn’s numbers have fallen, most dramatically among his own voters. Less than half of 2017 Labour voters now say he would be the better Prime Minister of the two.

We see much less change when we ask if people would prefer a Conservative government led by May, or a Labour government with Corbyn as Prime Minister. Here, there has been almost no change since I last asked the question at the beginning of the year, with just over half preferring the incumbent – itself a telling commentary on public reaction to the recent turmoil.

In fact, the political class as a whole has not covered itself in glory as far as the public is concerned. We asked whether people’s views of various politicians had become more positive or negative over the last few weeks, and in every case the latter outweighed the former. Even outspoken Brexiteers like Jacob Rees-Mogg, Dominic Raab and David Davis had as many Conservative Leave voters saying they had a lower opinion as a higher one. For May, the results were again mixed: nearly half of Conservative Remain voters said their opinion of her had risen, while just over a third of Conservative Leavers said it had fallen.

As far as the public were concerned, none of the supposed contenders to be Prime Minister would do a better job than the person who currently holds it. The group who thought another candidate would make a better Prime Minister than Theresa May was 2017 Labour voters, 58 per cent of whom (yes, just over half of Labour voters) thought Corbyn would do so. Though a third of Conservative Leavers thought Jacob Rees-Mogg or Boris Johnson would do a better job, slightly more of them thought that they would not. Conservative Leavers were most likely to warm to the idea of David Cameron taking over – an idea suggested by the irrepressible Steve Hilton – but even they were more likely to prefer the idea of May staying on.

Another piece of mixed news for the Conservatives is that perceptions of both parties are largely unchanged since I last asked about them in September. This is good news in the sense that tumultuous times have not pushed the party’s ratings a great deal lower; on the other hand, there wasn’t a great deal further for them to fall. While just under half think the party is willing to take tough decisions for the long term, only 22 per cent think the Tories are competent and capable, compared to 20 per cent for Labour. Only six in a hundred voters think the Conservative Party is united.

Just under half (45 per cent) of voters claimed to know either “a great deal” or “a bit” about the draft Brexit deal agreed between the Government and the EU. Just over half admitted they did not, including a quarter who said they knew “little or nothing” about the agreement.

Overall, just under one in five said that, from what they had read or heard, they thought the Brexit deal honoured the referendum result, including just 13 per cent of Leave voters. Only one group – Conservative Remainers – was more likely to say the deal honoured the result (35 per cent) than that it did not (27 per cent). Nearly four in ten said they didn’t know.

Voters as a whole were slightly more likely than not to say they thought the agreement was better than leaving the EU with no deal. Conservatives as a whole were evenly divided on this question, though Tory Remainers thought it was better than no deal by a 36-point margin, while Tory Leavers thought the opposite by 15 points. Labour voters overall were more likely to think the agreement better than no deal, but four in ten said they didn’t know.

However, voters were twice as likely to think the deal sounded worse than remaining in the EU on our current terms (42 per cent) as to think it sounded better (21 per cent). While Remain voters thought it sounded worse by a 43-point margin, Leavers were precisely divided – indeed Conservative Leave voters were the only group to think the deal would be preferable to remaining on our current terms (40 per cent) than worse (33 per cent).

Even so, voters were pessimistic about the prospects of negotiating a new agreement. Only just over one in ten thought the EU would be willing to agree new terms if Theresa May were to seek them, and only 15 per cent thought they would do so if they were approached by a new Prime Minister.

That being the case, what should MPs do if asked to vote for a Brexit deal they were unhappy with? 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,” rather than “vote to accept the Brexit agreement as an imperfect compromise and move onto other issues.”

Labour voters, Remainers as a whole and Conservative Leavers all favoured rejecting the agreement even in the face of unknown consequences; Conservative Remainers, notably, were the only group more inclined to accept an imperfect deal and move on.

By 65 per cent to 24 per cent, Conservative Remainers thought that a Labour government with Jeremy Corbyn as Prime Minister would be worse for Britain than leaving the EU with no deal. By the lower margin of 54 per cent to 33 per cent, Conservative Leavers thought a Corbyn-led Labour government would be worse than accepting a Brexit deal that did not mean the UK taking back full control of its money, borders and laws.

Labour Leave voters, meanwhile, said it was more important to them for the UK to take back full control than it was to get a Labour government with Corbyn as Prime Minister.

Voters rejected the idea of a second referendum to choose between the draft withdrawal agreement and leaving the EU with no deal by 19 points – though one in five said they didn’t know. However, there was only a nine-point margin against a referendum to choose between the draft deal and remaining in the EU.

There was less appetite for a general election. Only just over one in five – including fewer than four in ten Labour voters – said there should be a new election before the terms of Brexit are finalised. Only just over one in three said a general election should take place if Theresa May were replaced as PM before the Brexit deal was signed and sealed.

Further details of the research, including full data tables, are available at LordAshcroftPolls.com.

Iain Dale: Brady, not only keeper of the letters, but a dark horse leadership candidate

Plus: Cox, another possible. Plus 15 names in total. Women for May. And: I will make sure the Treasury backtracks on the loan charge scandal.

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

On Tuesday, Steve Baker led a Commons debate on the loan charge scandal. Although it was held in Westminster Hall, it was extremely well attended, with MPs from all parties giving John Glen, the Treasury Minister tasked with responding to the debate, a right going-over.

I wasn’t there, but am told that he looked rather shaken at the vehemence of some of the contributions. For those who don’t know about the loan charge controversy, HMRC is trying to claim 20 years of back taxes from people who legitimately took advantage of a tax scheme that reduced their tax liabilities.

These are not rich people; they are independent contractors. It emerged this week that Philip Hammond has had to apologise for the evidence he gave to the Treasury Select Committee in which he called such schemes ‘illegal tax evasion’. Since the schemes were endorsed by HMRC, they certainly couldn’t be described in this way. Indeed, not only were they endorsed by HMRC, but we found out this week that it was paying contractors itself using these schemes! Hypocritical, much.

I have no problem with the Treasury stopping these arrangements, but to go after people for 20 years of back taxes is just outrageous and contrary to all the rules of natural justice. They’re causing huge amounts of human misery, bankruptcies, family break-ups and even two suicides.

I have no doubt that they will have to backtrack on this, and admit that they’ve got it wrong. Indeed, I intend to make sure of it. It’s just a matter of when.

– – – – – – – – – –

If Theresa May is actually ever knocked off her perch, it is rumoured that up to 15 candidates might put their names forward to succeed her.

Most of their candidacies would be utterly self-delusional, of course, but one name which hasn’t yet done the rounds very much is that of the keeper of the 48 letters (or fewer) himself – Sir Graham Brady. He’s trusted across the party, he’s a Brexiteer of the non-foaming-at-the mouth-variety, he’s the right age… I could go on.

Elected in 1997 he would be popular with the older guard and, as Chairman of the 1922 Executive Committee, he’s also liked and respected by new MPs.

I hate to use the phrase ‘compromise candidate’, but it wouldn’t be the first time someone had come through the middle as everyone’s second choice. His main drawback is his relative lack of visibility in the voluntary party, I suppose.

I first met Graham back in the early 1990s when he was working at the Centre for Policy Studies. He then joined the transport-based public affairs consultancy that I was co-owner of. I came to know him well enough to be able to say repeatedly on the radio over the past week or two that if there’s anyone the Conservatives can trust to maintain the rules of the party over the leadership, it’s Graham. And I mean it.

– – – – – – – – – –

I wonder if the betting markets are taking bets on the number of Tory MPs who will throw their hat into the ring when the time comes. I reckon there are at least a dozen who have made it known they would consider running, or are expected to stand. Here’s my list so far…

  • Geoffrey Cox
  • David Davis
  • George Freeman
  • Michael Gove
  • Jeremy Hunt
  • Sajid Javid
  • Boris Johnson
  • Philip Lee
  • Penny Mordaunt
  • Amber Rudd
  • Tom Tugendhat

I saw one article claim that, if Michael Gove doesn’t stand, Nick Boles might while, according to one of my sources, Caroline Nokes, the Immigration Minister, might also take a punt. Given her record in the post so far, I’d say this would be a ‘courageous’ move on her part.

– – – – – – – – – –

One statistic leapt out at me from the recent spate of polls. It was the fact that  Labour’s six point lead among female voters has recently been transformed into a five point Tory lead.

I think there is a general feeling out there among so-called ‘normal’ voters that Theresa May is doing her best and that the beastly men are being unfair to her.  The rights and wrongs of the Brexit deal don’t really concern ordinary voters, but the optics do.

Women may not always be the greatest supporters of female politicians, but if they feel that a fellow woman is being bullied or unfairly treated, then the wagons begin to circle. That’s what’s happening here.

– – – – – – – – – –

A lot of attention has been paid to Cox over the last six weeks, since he sprang into our collective consciousness at the Birmingham conference, where he introduced the Prime Minister with a barnstorming rallying cry.

He’s now said to harbour some leadership ambitions himself. A bit as with Graham Brady, it’s not impossible to see the stars aligning. But attention should also be paid to his deputy, Robert Buckland, the Solicitor-General.

He’s increasingly rolled out to defend a sticky wicket in the media by Number Ten, and does a bloody good job at it. He’s also got a very well-developed sense of humour

I imagine he rather enjoys his current job, but in the next reshuffle I hope he gets a Minister of State post in which he can prove whether he’s got Cabinet potential. I rather think the answer will be yes.