Is Theresa May losing her way to a final, astonishing victory? One of the many lessons of the Brexit crisis seems to be that the old rules of politics were merely an illusion. The prime minister finds herself defeated again and again, whipping against her own motion on no deal, and suffering a breakdown in discipline in her own cabinet. And yet she remains in office ??? and her deal remains alive.
Puzzlingly, May???s proposal has the highest probability of any of the possible outcomes and yet is more likely to fail than to succeed. The principal strength of May???s deal is the fact of it. It is the only negotiated settlement with the EU that is available and the only route to leaving in an orderly fashion. No deal was revealed to have been a reckless political hoax designed to discipline MPs, but has caused far more problems for the prime minister than it solved. She has only herself to blame.
On the surface, the prime minister appears, against the odds, to be making progress. It has begun to dawn on members of the European Research Group (ERG) that by continuing to oppose May???s deal, they have imperilled the entire Brexit project. The number of Tory opponents to the deal is being whittled down by the hour. Indeed, if May were to offer to step down after exit day, she would win the support of the vast majority of the ERG.
Even the Democratic Unionist party (DUP) ??? once thought to be immovable ??? appears to be shifting position. It has now emerged that the party is aching to support a deal, and has entered secret talks with May???s team. It is likely to use some cosmetic changes to the legal advice of Geoffrey Cox, the attorney general, as a fig leaf to switch their votes. Fear of a Corbyn-led government has driven them back to the arms of the Conservative party.
But the problem for the prime minister is that in this hung parliament, it requires just a dozen Tory MPs to vote against the deal for it to be defeated, even with the DUP back in the fold. With MPs having demonstrated their opposition to no deal, Tory diehard remainers will be able to continue to vote against May???s deal in relative safety. It therefore requires just single digit numbers from the ERG to defeat her deal for a third time.
That???s why since the 2017 general election, it has been obvious to many observers that the prime minister would need Labour votes to pass her deal. Yet May has done almost nothing to provide them with the cover to do so. The ???stronger towns fund??? launched last week had a smaller annual budget than St Thomas??? hospital in London, the institution that MPs look out upon from the terrace of the palace of Westminster. And with no deal seemingly off the table, Labour MPs won???t be able to explain to their members that they backed Tory Brexit because they feared the consequences of crashing out. Some Labour MPs will not want to be seen to have frustrated Brexit, but at best they would abstain rather than vote with the government.
It has become the mantra of many that there is a majority for some variation of soft Brexit, whether you call it Norway plus, common market 2.0, or the shared market. But there is little evidence to support this view. Just as the Labour membership loathe May???s deal, the Tory membership would punish any MP who voted to prevent an independent trade policy through a customs union, an essential feature of any soft Brexit. For many Tories, a soft Brexit would be both pointless and a betrayal.
If the DUP comes back on board, the ERG is minimised, and sufficient numbers of Labour MPs from leave-supporting constituencies switch sides without a clear reason, then the deal might just scrape through. Modifications to the attorney general???s advice, together with the vote against no deal, provides thin justification for a third vote on essentially the same motion. But with next week???s votes on a knife-edge, it will really feel that we have entered the Brexit endgame.
??? Tom Kibasi is director of the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) and chair of its Commission on Economic Justice