George Parker: The ERG may soon discover that the PM’s Brexit deal is the only show in town

Posted On: 
15th February 2019

Conservative hard Brexiteers have inflicted another humbling defeat on Theresa May. But Downing Street insiders insist that in the end the PM will emerge from the political rubble clutching a Brexit deal, writes George Parker

Theresa May and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker earlier this month
Credit: 
PA

The Members’ lobby, that glorious ante room to the House of Commons chamber, remains the best place for a journalist to pick up the mood at Westminster and – let’s face it – the atmosphere is pretty vitriolic at the moment.

Some lobby correspondents nowadays favour Portcullis House as their preferred place for intelligence gathering, figuring that you can combine political gossip with a decent latte. The area near the escalators isn’t a bad place to loiter.

But we old timers still fall back on the Members’ lobby, where high level, off-the-record intrigue is exchanged under the watchful gaze of Thatcher, Attlee, Lloyd-George and Churchill on the usual lobby terms.

The best time to be there is after a crucial vote, especially after a government defeat, when emotions are running high and MPs and ministers are all too willing to vent their anger, frustration or joy – depending on your viewpoint.

I spent hours in the Members’ lobby during the Maastricht votes of the early 1990s, but even that did not compare with the acrid atmosphere that exists today. And unlike the Maastricht era, this time both Tories and Labour are badly split on Europe.

The mood after Thursday’s vote was one of bewilderment and anger: how did Number 10 manage to turn an apparently insignificant Brexit vote into another humbling defeat for the prime minister – one which sent a message to Brussels that she had lost control of parliament?

“Utter shambles,” said one minister. Some wondered why she had not simply put down the most anodyne neutral motion possible – perhaps urging her to get on the Eurostar, have a croissant and try to get an improved deal – to try to rally her divided party.

Instead the government put forward a motion which riled Eurosceptics – who felt it was asking them to take a no deal exit off the table – and infuriated some pro-European Tories who want a softer Brexit or no Brexit at all. The result? Another defeat, this time by 45 votes.

And, of course, there was raw anger among pro-Europeans who blamed the pro-Brexit European Research Group for being the principal authors of Mrs May’s defeat. They believe Jacob Rees-Mogg’s group wants a no deal Brexit and is content to keep pushing Britain closer to exit day on March 29.

The ERG deny that, but the Brexit psychodrama means there is now real venom in the way members of the Conservative party talk about each other. And with some Labour MPs talking about setting up a pro-European centrist party, this feels like a big moment for British politics.

So, what happens now? Well, Downing Street insiders insist that in the end Theresa May will emerge from the political rubble clutching a revised Brexit deal and that the House of Commons will back it at the eleventh hour.

This might seem unlikely after the latest convulsions, but let’s try to imagine how things might look in the final week of February, which is being billed by pro-Europeans as “the highest of high noons” in the Brexit process.

On 27 February a group of senior MPs, led by Labour’s Yvette Cooper and the Conservative Sir Oliver Letwin, will table an amendment intended to empower MPs to block a no deal exit – if Mrs May has not won approval for a deal by mid-March.

Downing St fears the amendment will pass, possibly assisted by a slew of resignations by pro-European cabinet ministers. Mrs May will try to bring forward some kind of revised deal for a meaningful vote before February 27.

If she can somehow persuade the Democratic Unionist Party to back the deal – some kind of legal guarantee that the famous Irish backstop is temporary – Downing St believes that scores of Tory Eurosceptic MPs will come on board.

It is a tall order, given the EU’s refusal to reopen the withdrawal agreement, but there are highly paid lawyers in Brussels, skilled at finding legal fixes.

And if the ERG believes that a no deal Brexit is about to be taken off the table – raising fears of a lengthy delay to Brexit, or Brexit not happening at all – Mrs May’s deal might ultimately be viewed as the only show in town.

Maybe. Anyone standing in members’ lobby on Friday would have been hard-pressed to imagine that any compromise might be available, but there are those around the prime minister who still believe it can be achieved.

George Parker is Political Editor of the Financial Times