Almost good enough isn’t good enough

Strangely but truly, the best way of helping the Prime Minister is to send her back to Brussels to win concessions on the backstop.

ConservativeHome’s first rule of Commons votes is that the Speaker will do everything he can to spite the Government.  He is therefore unlikely to smile on any eleventh-hour manuscript amendment designed to reduce the scale of Theresa May’s loss this evening.  None of the Conservative amendments that would aid the Government are expected to pass – Andrew Murrison’s, Hugo Swire’s, Edward Leigh’s.  Labour will whip against them and ERG-aligned MPs will vote against them.  They take the same view of these as they do of yesterday’s letter from Donald Tusk and Jean-Claude Juncker to the Prime Minister: that they carry no legal weight of any significance.

The amendment that would most spare the Prime Minister’s blushes is Hillary Benn’s, which is both anti-her deal and anti-No Deal.  It is thought likely to be carried, thereby obviating her main motion – but by a smaller margin than she would otherwise lose by.  Some Tory MPs have therefore been discreetly lobbied by Whips to back this amendment that opposes her deal.  Since Benn’s anti-deal amendment is thus helpful to May (we hope you’re still with us), it follows that he may withdraw it: indeed, it is reported this morning that he has now done so.

When unclear about procedural malarkey, it’s usually best to turn to MPs’ motives.  It will do for our purposes today to look at the Conservatives only.  They fall roughly into five groups: loyalists, Remainers, Soft Brexiteers – and then two types of harder Brexiteers.  The loyalists will of course vote for the Prime Minister’s motion, assuming it is reached, as will those Conservative MPs convinced of the merits of her deal.  Remainers, such as Dominic Grieve, will largely vote against.  Soft Brexiteers, such as our columnist Nicky Morgan, will mostly vote for.  They will then cluster around Nick Boles’ Norway Plus scheme, or some variant of EEA membership.

The harder Brexiteers divide into two main tendencies.  First, there are those set against May’s deal at any price.  Let’s call them the diehards, adapting the use of the term by James Forsyth.  They actively hunger for No Deal and the WTO minimum.  The second are those who believe, as Jacob Rees-Mogg puts it in our Moggcast this morning, that “most of the poison is in the backstop”.  Again borrowing from Forsyth, let’s refer to them as the Ditchers.  Were the UK to have a unilateral escape clause from it, or were it to have a clear end-date, most of this band of MPs would drop their opposition to the deal and move to support it.  It just might then be able to pass.

It follows that it is therefore in the interest of this second group as well as the first to vote against the deal today – since, by doing so, they would send a message to Brussels that it will only clear Parliament if concessions are made on the backstop.  But not so fast.  Some of the Ditchers are brooding over the numbers.  They calculate that if the Prime Minister loses by a big margin tonight, the EU may give up on the deal together.  And that if she does so by a small one, it will offer no further concessions.  But if she loses by a margin somewhere in between the two, concessions of real value will be forthcoming.

They may be right.  As March 29 approaches, we are hearing rather less about how the deal represents “the last word” of the EU, that “rule-based organisation”, which “won’t budge”.  And more and more about how it may blink after all.  None the less, we hope that Ditcher MPs aren’t drawn into playing clever-clever games this evening, tailoring their votes according to what they believe May’s likely majority may be, and trying to game the result so that she loses by, say, 50 votes or so in order to squeeze those concessions out of the EU.  Such wheezes are not unknown among “the most sophisticated electorate in the world”.

The simple truth is that none are in a position to second-guess the mass of individual decisions that their colleagues may take.  And that, in such circumstances, the most straighforward course is nearly always the best.  Which is this case is: to judge the Prime Minister’s deal on its merits and demerits.  What are these?  In our view, Brexit is a film, not a photo.  In other words, where Britain is on March 29 is not necessarily where we will be in ten years’ time.  For example, it would be acceptable to stay in a customs union for a transition period.  Indeed, it is inevitable, since the systems are not yet ready to escape it.

What is not acceptable is for that film to be “Groundhog Day” – in short, for a backstop from which we have no guarantee of escape lock the whole UK in a customs union, with Northern Ireland none the less divided from Great Britain.  The proposed regulatory border in the Irish sea would separate the province further from the rest of the country.  That has implications not only for Northern Ireland but for Scotland, and thus for the unity of the UK.  The deal sets up an institutional tension between Eurosceptism and unionism, since Great Britain could move further, under its terms, from Single Market and Customs Union rules, but Northern Ireland could not.

For this reason, we hope that Conservative MPs vote against May’s deal this evening.  As we’ve said before, it almost works.  Theresa May won on borders and money in the negotiation, and minimised the ECJ’s scope on laws, which could reasonably be scored as a points win.  She gained the bespoke deal that her critics said would be impossible.  She has won almost no credit for this achievement, first, because she has no media allies or strong public backing, but faces formidable opposition from both second referendum Remainers and UKIP-type Leavers; second, because U-turns and broken pledges elsewhere have bust her credibility and third, of course, because of the backstop.

But almost good enough is not good enough.  Strangely but truly, Tory MPs can best help their leader by voting her deal down today, sending her back to Brussels, and gaining those backstop concessions.  This is far from being a guaranteed outcome but it is not at all an impossible one.  The EU doesn’t want a messy Brexit on its north-west frontier if it can be avoided, especially with the possibility of recession coming to the Eurozone.  Either way, the Commons should honour the referendum result.  May’s deal ultimately falls short of doing so – and guarantees losing the DUP, together with her majority.

Keep your eyes fixed on the Withdrawal Agreement, which would be backed by law. Not on this Political Declaration. Which wouldn’t.

A staple of stagecraft magic is misdirection. While his audience is gawping at one thing, the magician is swiftly doing another. So it may be now.

Bobby Locke, the South African golfer, said that “you drive for show but you putt for dough”.  At first glance, what may be true of golf is true of the proposed Brexit deal’s Political Declaration, now expanded from a slim seven pages to a slightly longer 26.  By contrast, the Withdrawal Agreement runs to 585 pages.

This points to the essence of the proposed deal. The Withdrawal Agreement is for dough.  In other words, it means business: it will be legally enforceable, if agreed to.  The Political Declaration, by contrast, is not.  It is, ultimately, for show.  “Ambitious, broad, deep and flexible partnership…common European heritage…shared values…unique context”: all the cliches of official-ese are present, but the Declaration, unlike the Agreement, will not be enforceable before a court.

For this reason, we won’t probe it at the length we afforded to the Withdrawal Agreement.  Instead, we return to a core observation we made about the latter.  The UK has scored some tactical wins in these negotiations, some of them with striking implications, but the EU has won the strategic victory.  From the start, it has offered a choice: between a kind of Norway-plus-customs union option, or a sort of Canada-minus-Northern Ireland option.

In sum, the Declaration reflects this offer.  Considered as a whole, the deal will have the effect, if Parliament approves it, of turning the Conservative Party into a kind of pushmepullyou, as James Forsyth suggests today.  On the one hand, its Eurosceptic instincts will pull it in the direction of the Canadian-type option; on the other, its Unionist beliefs will push it towards the Norwegian-shaped one – since most Tories will not want to widen the customs and regulatory gap which the Agreement opens up between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

True, there is a minority strand in Conservative thinking that would let the latter go its own way.  But it is not possible simply to hive the province off, even were this desirable (which it isn’t): the preservation of Northern Ireland in the EU’s customs and regulatory arrangements, without the province’s elected representatives having a future say in them, would have dangerous knock-on effects on the British Isles as whole.  Furthermore, the implications for Scotland are considerable – and baleful.

British statecraft has kept the Union together for over two hundred years.  No Tory MP should vote for a deal that endangers it, as this one does.  And while the wins for either side the EU in the Agreement are bankable, those in this Declaration are not.  Take fishing as an example.  On the one hand, the Declaration envisages Britain as an independent coastal state, in control of its own waters.  On the other, it envisages a new fishing agreement with “access to water and coastal shares”.

As with immigration, this represents change in principle (though how much in practice is being disputed).  But there is a difference: migration is essentially covered by the enforceable Agreement, not this unenforceable Declaration.  It is otherwise with fishing.  Similarly, the Declaration contains some warm words about finding “alternative arrangements” to the backstop.  But, again, the backstop is set out in the Agreement; this nod to MaxFac is restricted to the Declaration.

We see little in the last to keep alive the Chequers dream of a separation between manufacturing and services.  Nor does it envisage trade arrangements which end friction rather than minimise it.  The implication is that the less friction in trade the UK wants, the more EU alignment and migration it must take: that’s the theology of the four freedoms at work.  The deal as a whole separates these slightly, but the EU will resist them coming apart.

A staple of magicians’ stagecraft is misdirection.  While his audience is gawping at one thing, the magician is swiftly doing another.  So it may be with the Declaration.  Even as politicians, analysts and journalists prod and poke at it, don’t rule out, during the run-up to this weekend’s summit, a sudden flourish on the Agreement – a dramatic concession on the backstop (say), whether substantial or meaningless, aimed at collapsing backbench resistance to the deal.

Finally, we apologise to Locke.  We said that at first glance the Declaration is for show, and so it is.  But on reflection, like the Agreement, it’s for dough, too – all £39 billion of it.