Stalemate

May wins – but not by enough to break free from her internal opponents. Too strong to fall and too weak to win, she is, if anything, more exposed to them than before.

The editors of this site spare no effort on our readers’ behalf.

Why, we have even offered you exact figures from today’s confidence ballot.  200 votes for Theresa May and 117 against her, we wrote this afternoon, would be a “Problematic Win”: “once the opposition to May climbs above a third of the electorate, it becomes harder to assert legitimacy”.

So it has proved.  A third of the 317 Conservative MPs is 106.  So 117 is a bit north of that – 37 per cent, close on two of them in five.  Furthermore, one must take the payroll vote into account.  Either 62 per cent of the non-payroll voted against her, an indisputable majority.  Or one must let that percentage fall…but raise the proportion of the payroll that opposed her, pari passu.

All in all, this result isn’t bad enough to spur her Cabinet into removing her, as Margaret Thatcher’s did to the then Prime Minister in 1990 (Were its members less timid and had the Tories a majority, matters might be different, especially were the Government not embroiled in the most important negotiation of modern times.)

But nor is it good enough to free Theresa May from the ERG, their allies and the DUP – or from the Conservative Norwegians and second referendum campaigners, for that matter.  And since her vote is a bit lower than expected and the opposition a bit higher, the ERG whips can take a modest bow.  Having apparently predicted the result to within three votes, they have salvaged their reputation for numeracy.

The ERG claims 80 members – a total about which we’ve always been a bit sniffy.  But the lower the number really is, the more support they’ve put on today – in the wake of a rushed ballot, the timing of which caught the group on the hop; of a co-ordinated Twitter blitz on the Prime Minister’s behalf, and of a carefully-crafted appearance by her outside Downing Street, in which she pushed claims about the contest that were, shall we say, debatable.

You will say reply May scooped 63 per cent of the vote, and that her leadership can’t now be challenged for a year.  Quite so.  However, those facts simply open up a new range of problems.  She will have wanted to win by a margin large enough to justify bringing her Brexit deal back to the Commons.  It is very hard to see how this drab result can be treated as a springboard to that effect.

But if it can’t be used to threaten the Commons with No Deal (as in: “my deal or no deal”), it can scarcely be used to threaten the Commons with no Brexit either (“my deal or no Brexit”).  These numbers don’t give her a platform solid enough on which to pivot to postponing Article 50, or a Second Referendum, or Norway Plus.

The Queen is the most powerful piece on the chess board.  And the Prime Minister is the most powerful member of the Government, usual rules permitting.  May retains the title, but cannot move except by putting her side into check.  Her internal opponents can’t no confidence her for the next twelve months.  But she can’t win votes or get legislation through without their help.

Across the board this evening, she and the pawns and knights of the ERG glower and frown at each other.  We have stalemate.

And all the while, Labour watch and wait for the day when they can take on the Queen and her allies themselves – if she’s still in place then.

Chicken May

Is she chickening out on Brexit? Or playing chicken with Commons and Party over her deal? Or merely a headless chicken herself – bent on daily survival?

What now is Theresa May’s plan, this morning after the day before?  The simplest explanations are often the most convincing.  In her case, this is: she no longer has one.  Her ambitions for country, party and self have shrunk to seeing each day out.  The most primal of human instincts has taken over, more urgent even than the drives to sex and food: simply to survive. Clinging to office fills her horizon.  She shuffles on into a void.  The will to power has left her a ghost.  Perhaps that is all that can be said.

But there are two other potential answers, assuming that she is not brooding on a general election or preparing to resign – a move that would be out of character for a woman who appears to equate being Prime Minister, whatever the circumstances, with doing her duty.  These explanations are worth probing because, with the future of country, Party and Brexit at stake, Conservative MPs, activists and others must work every faculty to read the signs of the times accurately, and then act promptly.

The first is that she has already decided to postpone Brexit, seek a second referendum, or both.  This take has it that she knows very well that her deal will not be substantially improved by the EU; that it therefore cannot pass through Parliament; that the Remain-friendly Commons will shortly bid for control of its proceedings and timetable – and that she will then, a confidence vote from her Parliamentary Party notwithstanding, give way.  No deal is better than a bad deal has been supplanted by any deal is better than no deal.

Like an empty boat being pushed by the tide, she will drift along with the five-sixths or so of MPs who see a no deal Brexit as the ultimate political evil.  Perhaps the Commons will somehow pull for Norway Plus instead; more likely, it won’t.  It was worth watching which Cabinet heads nodded on her own front bench yesterday when she reiterated the Government’s present stance on a second referendum – and which didn’t.  Greg Clark’s didn’t so much as twitch.  David Lidington and David Gauke are also reported to be ready for a U-turn.

As for that policy – opposition to another referendum – how sure is it?  Indeed, what faith can we place in any commitment that May makes on Brexit, or indeed on anything else?  She promised that she wouldn’t call an election last year; that her Brexit policy would be based on “a comprehensive system of mutual recognition”; that migration would be controlled during transition; that transition wouldn’t be extended; that she would oppose new regulatory barriers in the Irish sea. Ministers were told last year that the backstop had no legal effect.

Politics is a rough old trade, and bending the truth is, as elsewhere in life, part of it.  But even by the standards of Westminster, the Prime Minister’s breaches are brazen.  Leave aside as debatable those manifesto commitments on the Customs Union, the ECJ and the Single Market, and look at the events of recent days.  May said that the EU would not offer us a better deal if the present draft is rejected.  Now she suggests that it can be improved after all, not ruling out changes to the Withdrawal Agreement itself yesterday.

Stephen Barclay and Gove were sent out – the latter only yesterday morning – to assure the public that the meaningful vote would go ahead.  As late as 11am, the Prime Minister’s spokesman was insisting that this was so, even as Cabinet Ministers were briefing that it wasn’t.  Small details like these have big consequences.  Near the core of May’s problem in selling her deal to MPs is that too many of them have simply lost trust in her.  Some no longer believe assurances even when they are accurate – say, on future divergence.

The second interpretation of the Prime Minister’s thinking is completely different.  We advance it with some hesitation, because it may represent less a scheme crafted deliberately than one stumbled upon by accident.  The sum of her statement yesterday was that the meaningful vote is postponed.  She gave no indication whatsoever of when it will be brought back.  In reply to Justine Greening, she suggested that the Government is obliged to hold it by January 21.  Later that day, that was flatly contradicted by the Commons authorities.

Under their interpretation, May’s real deadline is March 28, since the Commons must ratify any amended deal reached with the EU no later than that date.  This could open up an opportunity for the Prime Minister to play a risky game of chicken with our EU interlocuters, the Commons and the Party.  For the later the meaningful vote takes place, the more sharply a no deal Brexit will loom.  This might open up an option for her: don’t rush for a settlement pre-Christmas, but spin out the talks instead – thus ramping up pressure on MPs.

It is possible to think May now believes that, under that pressure, the EU will fold next year, and offer a time limit or a unilateral exit from the backstop.  Or that she is concluding the Commons would collapse, even if the EU did not – that, with March 28 and no deal immiment, Labour would buckle and abstain, together with other opposition parties.  Or that even if Jeremy Corbyn did not, some Labour MPs would.  Meanwhile, Conservative opponents could be steered into the abstention column, and Tory abstainers into the aye lobby.

Now, this scenario makes many assumptions: that the Prime Minister will still be in place; that there is no Cabinet revolt; that the Commons has not, by the New Year, wrested control from the Government altogether; that MPs do not (if May seeks to spin out her dealings with the EU) revolt, propose the postponement of Article 50 and perhaps a second referendum, and then see her back down; that the Prime Minister has not been censured, or the Government no confidenced.

But one can also see how the truth could be found here – that May is not so much a headless chicken herself, or seeking to chicken out of Brexit but, rather, now sees before her this game of chicken unfolding as next year unfolds.  It would have one immeasurable plus from her point of view.  It would if successful be a win.  Her deal would have triumphed.  She would have crushed her internal opponents – hard Brexiteers, Norwegians, second referendum supporters: the lot.  The stage would be set for her to go on and on and on towards 2022.

So, back to the present. The wolf has cried 48 letters many times.  It may be that, unlike the animal in the fable, it never comes: that waiting for those letters is like waiting for Godot.  The next 24 hours or so may represent the last chance before the New Year for Tory MPs to act.  Some may do so, convinced that the Prime Minister is beyond rescue.  Others may waver still, terrified of the effect of a leadership challenge on what’s left of the negotiation, or unconvinced by May’s potential replacements.

Our bottom line is that the referendum result must be delivered.  If pro-Brexit MPs believe May is now set on a chicken game, they may stay their hand.  If they conclude that she is set on abandoning Brexit, they won’t and shouldn’t.  On Sunday, we recommended that Tory MPs should send in letters if no substantial change to the backstop emerges this week.  Perhaps the most reliable guide should be what could be called the Greg Hands test – namely, to send in those letters if real preparations for no deal aren’t announced before the weekend.

Chris White: A guide to what could happen in the Commons this week

I set out what could happen – and translate what the amendments to the Government’s motion mean.

Chris White was Special Adviser to Patrick McLoughlin, when the latter served as Chief Whip, as well as to Andrew Lansley and William Hague when each served as Leader of the House. He is now Managing Director of Newington Communications.

On Tuesday, the Government will face its toughest test – trying to get its Withdrawal Agreement through Parliament. Eight hours of debate will be followed by a series of votes that will decide the future of the UK, as well as the Prime Minister and the Conservative Party. The stakes could not be higher.

Over 100 Conservative MPs have publicly declared they will vote against the Theresa May’s deal. Yet it is important to remember that there might not even be a vote on the deal. Equally, an amendment could pass which if won, would mean no vote on the Government’s Withdrawal Agreement. Below I set out what could happen, as well as translate what the motions actually mean.

The Government caves in and changes the Parliamentary business, or fails to move the vote, because it knows it is going to lose

The numbers look terrible for the Government, and there have been no MPs who have publicly swapped sides to endorse the Prime Minister’s deal. The reality of the situation is that the Government knows that it is going to lose, and so could decide to pull the vote and seek state that it accepts it won’t get it through Parliament. Graham Brady, Chair of the 1922 Committee, took the highly unusual step of recommending this in the media. This would be highly embarrassing, but would avoid a humiliating defeat, with the Prime Minister forced to go back to Brussels to renegotiate. There are two ways of doing this:

  • Emergency Business Statement: The Leader of the Commons, Andrea Leadsom, either on Monday or Tuesday at the start of Parliamentary business, makes a statement changing the business for the day, pulling the last day of debate and the votes.
  • The Government Minister winding up the debate ‘talks out’ the votes: The business motion for the debate has been cleverly drafted – under section 10 (c), only a Minister may move a closure, which basically means if they are still standing and speaking at the end of the debate, the votes won’t be moved.

An amendment to the Government motion is passed, politically changing the deal

In the table below I’ve listed the 13 amendments tabled so far by MPs. Of these, six will be selected by the Speaker – it’s not certain which he will select, but some have more chance than others – my current thinking is amendments (a) (b) (i) (k) (l) and (m). It’s unlikely that the official Labour one would succeed – amendment (a) – as Tory MPs and the DUP won’t support it, and of the others:

Hilary Benn – amendment (i) explicitly rejects the UK leaving on no deal, and demands the Government move straight to the final Parliamentary debate under the terms of the EU Withdrawal Act. This is the one which the Government lost a vote on last week, which basically means that Parliament is able to direct Government politically which course of action it should pursue. Whilst this isn’t binding under legislation, and the Government could still theoretically leave under no deal terms, it would be politically challenging to do so.

Backbench Conservative – there are three motions which seek to do similar things (b) (e) and (f) – force the Government to place a time limit on the NI backstop, or to reject the backstop. Even if this passed, the UK Government would have to seek agreement from the EU.

Liberal Democrat – amendment (l) calls on the UK Government to hold a second referendum. This would require primary legislation, and even if passed swiftly, such a referendum could not be held within the next 5 months because of the time needed to organise.

No amendments are passed, but the main Government motion fails as well

In this scenario, all votes fail, and the Commons fails to both pass the Withdrawal Agreement, and direct the Government what to do next. This would be hugely damaging to the Prime Minister. Under the EU Withdrawal Act the Government has 21 days to make a statement to the Commons setting out what it plans to do next, and within seven days of that statement the Government must bring forward a motion for the House to consider. This motion can now be amended following the Government’s defeat next week, and the Commons would be able to express a view on what to do next, though this would not be binding on the Government.

What could happen next?

If the Government motion fails, and all amendments fail, then there are several things that might happen:

  • May could face a vote of no confidence in the Commons. Kier Starmer has said that Labour would table a vote, but with the DUP stating that they would support the Conservatives in such a vote, this is unlikely to succeed. If the Government did fall, there would be 14 days for another Government to win a vote of confidence in the Commons, or the country will have a General Election.
  • Conservative MPs put in 48 letters, and the party has to have a confidence vote in the Prime Minister. If 48 letters go in, this would require a swift vote of confidence, where May must win more than 50 per cemt of the 315 eligible MPs. If she lost, the party then has to elect a new leader. Given the incredibly short timescale before 29th March, the Conservative Party would be signing its own death warrant to do this.
  • Labour tries to table a censure motion about May – this is effectively a personal vote of no confidence in the Prime Minister, which is what happened recently to Chris Grayling. This would potentially allow Tory MPs to vote against the May without bringing down the Government. However the Government is under no obligation to provide time for an Opposition Day before Christmas, so this is unlikely to happen.
  • The Prime Minister goes to negotiate with Brussels and brings back an amended deal. This would then require the Government to win a vote on its renegotiated deal, using the procedure outlined above.
    If no negotiated deal can pass through the Commons the UK will leave the EU without a deal.

My best guess is that if the Government doesn’t pull the vote, then none of the amendments or the main motion will pass. The Government will then be forced to return to Brussels and try and renegotiate, whilst no-confidence motions in the Government or the Prime Minister are unlikely to succeed due to the dire situation the Tory Party would find itself in. What happens next will depend on whether the Prime Minister can remove either the backstop, or insert a time limit on it, in order for the deal to satisfy enough Tory MPs.

List of amendments before the House – Green means likely to be selected by the Speaker for voting, yellow means a reasonable chance of being selected.

Why Conservative MPs should prepare to call for a confidence vote in the Prime Minister’s leadership this week

A new leader will be a surer means of delivering Brexit if she can’t extract last-minute backstop concessions.

It may now not be possible for the Government to postpone Tuesday’s evening’s coming vote on Theresa May’s Brexit deal.  Or the Speaker – that friend of Labour and enemy of Brexit – may somehow block any such move.  Or Downing Street may find some face-saving amendment that minimises the scale of defeat.

But whatever happens, the Prime Minister has a last chance this week to amend the element of the deal that makes it unacceptable: the backstop.  So whether or not the vote takes place, she must push the EU in Brussels on Thursday for a unilateral right of exit or a time limit.

We have no confidence that such a manoeuvre will succeed if executed by her at this stage.  It could just be that, confronted by the prospect of a disorderly Brexit on its north-west frontier, the EU gives way.  But it is far more likely to stand firm, hoping – with reason – that May will then lose control of the Commons altogether, which will then push for the postponement of Article 50 and a second referendum, to which pressure she will yield.  The European Court is primed to pave the way for this development on Monday.  Furthermore, backing down on the backstop would mean the EU27 deserting one of its own, the country which has been the biggest winner in the negotiation to date: Ireland.

The Prime Minister would then have three policy options: that second referendum, Norway-plus-the-backstop and no deal.  Since she opposes all of them, the logic of the impasse would point to resignation.  But we read May as believing that it would be her duty as a public servant to carry on.  And what seems to animate her most is a fear of no deal – an outcome which the Government has had a duty to prepare for, which it has failed properly to do.

She would therefore bend either to cross-party pressure for the Norway scheme, or for that second referendum – thereby spitting in the face of the biggest-ever vote in British electoral history, breaking her own manifesto commitments, and crafting a narrative of betrayal that threatens frightening consequences for the country.  Even if she doesn’t do all this, however, the point at which she provided effective leadership and credible negotiating is past, if the backstop can’t be altered this week.

Conservative MPs will therefore have no alternative, if she can’t extract that last-minute change, but to write to Graham Brady seeking a vote of confidence in May’s leadership.  Cabinet members are preparing for this development already: today’s papers are packed with details of fledgling leadership campaigns, and Amber Rudd has already broken with Downing Street by supporting a Plan B (Norway-plus-the-backstop) if Plan A fails.

The way would thus be open for candidates supporting a second referendum, the Norway scheme or no deal to MPs and Party members.  We suspect that the eventual outcome would favour that last option.  The new Prime Minister would then face a titanic struggle between the Conservative manifesto position, reinforced by Party members, and those MPs determined to flout the referendum mandate.  His or her message to Commons and the country would be: the government I lead will deliver the referendum result.  If you want to thwart me, the only means available to you will be a vote of no confidence.

Ultimately, the argument for this course is that the alternative is even worse.  May’s threat of a Corbyn Government before Christmas is evidence of her desperation and – unless the EU somehow saves her – ruin.  For the DUP has made it clear that it will only abandon the Conservatives if her deal passes the Commons, not if it fails.

Nine out of ten Conservative activists are against a second referendum. Our survey.

And No Deal is now activists’ most favoured option of all. Views are hardening as the endgame looms into sight.

It is far from certain that there is or will be a majority in the Commons for the abandonment of Brexit – the real aim of the second referendum campaigners.  But it is increasingly possible to imagine that there might be – and that this Government would then seek both to postpone the leaving date and to enact just such a referendum.  Theresa May is in breach of so many previous positions that for her simply to follow the impulses of an instinctively pro-Remain Commons would be a logical next step.  (Let us not be detained by the thought that if such a move didn’t spark a leadership challenge, nothing will ever do.)  What seems now to drive her is a primal fear of no deal.  Her declaration that no deal is better than a bad deal is being turned on its head.

At any rate, our latest survey results are a reminder that any such grandmother of all U-turns would have very serious consequences for the Conservative Party, outside Parliament as well as within in.

Nine out of ten party activists are opposed to a second referendum.  If Downing Street or CCHQ thinks that they would all meekly turn out to campaign for the Party in the wake of any push from the leadership for a second referendum, it might want to think again.  Certainly, many of them would turn out against Jeremy Corbyn in a general election.  But not all.  The immediate aftermath of a U-turn would be torn-up membership cards, cancelled subscriptions, less money and fewer boots on the ground.  And as both the 2015 and 2017 elections demonstrated – positively and negatively in turn – having campaigners in the right places counts.  Some of these disillusioned Tories might cast around for a new, credible UKIP.  Most would simply sit on their hands.

Note too that backing for a Norwegian-type EEA solution stands at about the same level, in the survey’s attempt to find out which Brexit options, if any, make activists’ hearts beat a bit faster.

Object if you will that Canada Plus Plus Plus is not on the table (the Prime Minister snatched it off at Chequers); or that Norway-to-Canada now doesn’t seem to be, either (maybe it never was; perhaps it might have got somewhere had May pushed it).  The point is to find out what our panel members want.  It is just possible to believe that they will warm to any Norway Plus option – if it is deliverable, outside Parliament as well as in, which it may not be – in the event of a final choice being between it and no deal.  But the survey provides no basis for believing so.  No Deal is now activists’ most favoured option of all, it finds, narrowly outscoring even a Canadian-type settlement.  Views are hardening as the endgame looms into sight.

 

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.

Robert Halfon: My constituents are against us shelling out £39 billion for nothing. Anyway, are we really obliged to pay?

If all this is correct, the EEA route seems to me a sensible way forward if Parliament can’t agree on a deal.

Robert Halfon is MP for Harlow, a former Conservative Party Deputy Chairman, Chair of the Education Select Committee and President of Conservative Workers and Trade Unionists.

In a question to the Prime Minister last week at PMQs, I asked:

“I do have respect for the Prime Minister, and I understand her position. However, over the past few years, we have had very difficult cutbacks to local services in constituencies such as mine – in Harlow – and across the country, and ​every time we make the case that it is a difficult economy and we do not have enough money. How do I explain to my constituents that we have £39 billion to get out from the Treasury sofa to give to the European Union when it is questionable whether we owe all that money? Does she not agree that this is not just about the European Union – it is a matter of social justice?

In our communities, the difficult economic situation has hit our local services, our neighbourhood groups, charities and policing – amongst other things. And yet, when push comes to shove, the Government seems willing to hand over £39 billion from scarce monetary resources.

This hefty financial settlement means that Brexit has no longer stolen only the limelight of Government business, pushing domestic policy issues down the pecking order, but is now robbing from the pay packets of hardworking taxpayers who want to see a better return on their investment at home.

And what’s worse, according to legal experts, the basis of this hand-out is questionable at law. The EU argues that we have a financial obligation to pay the £39 billion. But is this really the case? The House of Lords European Union Committee suggests otherwise. Lawyers for Britain’s analysis even goes as far as to conclude that we are owed £10 billion!

The wording of Article 50 is clear: upon leaving the EU, “the treaties shall cease to apply to the state in question”, be that by way of the Withdrawal Agreement or, in the event of a No Deal – either way, on the 29 March next year.

As legal professionals and scholars note in the Lords’ report, the hierarchical structure of EU legislation entails that once treaties cease to apply to the UK, so too do all EU legal obligations found in subordinate legislation, including the UK’s current and future financial obligations under the Own Resources Decision, the Multiannual Financial Framework and the annual budget. Lawyers for Britain scrutinise the EU’s approach: the EU is inevitably bargaining for the most expensive divorce bill it can get its hands on, and attempting to secure contributions for two years after withdrawal.

Furthermore, the Lords’ Committee report shows that any attempt to enforce payment by the European Union would be null and void. It would first depend on a member state bringing an action before the European Court of Justice – the European Union as an entity cannot do so. But significantly, the ECJ would no longer have jurisdiction to make binding legal judgments against the UK. A double-edged sword in that the Government’s White Paper has clarified that the Great Repeal Bill will remove any supremacy of EU law: indeed, it will cease to be a source of domestic law, removing any possibility of enforcing the UK’s financial obligations.

On top of all this, the Attorney General confirmed to me in the Commons on Monday, that if Britain extended its transition period, not only would we owe £39 billion, but potentially many more billions in the transition years.

But even if the Government is right, and even if we must pay £39 billion, is it fair to give them a whole load of money without asking for anything, in return – for example, an end date for the Backstop?

We need a Stop-Gap, not a Back-Stop.

What happens if the deal falls in the Commons? What is the alternative? If you read David Owen or  George Trefgarne, you will see that one proposed solution is to rejoin the European Economic Area. Having signed up to the EEA back in 1992, a letter to the European Free Trade Association is apparently all would take to reactivate our membership – a seemingly painless alternative to anything else on the table.

If this route is adopted, Trefgarne argues we would face no extra tariffs, and we would be in the Single Market – but outside the Customs Union. We would no longer be under the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice, but the EFTA court, of which three out of five of the judges would be British.

If all this is correct, the EEA route seems to me a sensible way forward if Parliament can’t agree on a deal. It would give us a temporary ‘stop-gap’ until we negotiate and prepare for a potential, full No Deal with the EU, but it wouldn’t cause significant problems in terms of business and the economy. Belonging to the EEA would also cost much less – an annual payment of between £1.5 to £3 billion.

The beauty of this stop-gap is its simplicity. Owen states that “We, like the three other non-EU members of the EEA, would not be starting out as part of the EU customs union, though we could pursue that. We could pursue our own EU-UK free trade association (FTA)….there is no necessity for us to join EFTA. We would not be fixing any time limit as to how long we stay in the EEA. Like the other three non-EU countries, we would continue to be bound, as are all parties to the EEA agreement, to give one year’s notice of leaving.”

In a recent, brilliant BBC Westminster Hour interview, Charles Walker said that next week’s vote is possibly one of the biggest votes that all MPs will make for many years. He is right. Whilst I really worry about the chaos that may ensue if the deal is voted down, the issue surely is: do you vote for the deal, with its flaws, because of worries about the aftermath (i.e. do you vote for nurse, for fear of something worse) or do you vote on the merits or demerits of the deal itself – value to the taxpayer, and whether the referendum result is being truly honoured?