If No10 are to have any chance of passing this deal, they need to sort out their messaging
A number of errors by Downing St have made the already daunting task of passing Theresa May's Brexit deal all the more challenging, says The House magazine's political editor Sebastian Whale
You’d like to think that even the most obdurate person in the deepest state of denial can see that the Commons just isn’t buying what the PM is selling. But Theresa May’s already steeply uphill challenge was made almost insurmountable by the mixed messages coming out of Downing St since the Withdrawal Agreement was settled on 13 November.
First, a hastily arranged press conference was postponed by No10 in lieu of the following day’s Cabinet to sign off the agreement and subsequent statement to the Commons. That key 24-hour window was therefore lost to rumours about the PM’s position and backlash to the deal. The DUP, Labour and the usual hardline Brexiteers seized the opportunity to eviscerate its contents without turning one of the 585 pages (no mean feat).
Briefings then emerged that No10 was preparing for a second Commons vote after banking on a defeat at the first attempt. This has proved deeply unhelpful. The vote on the Brexit deal is one that will follow these MPs throughout their career. But this message has given a free pass to waverers, who otherwise harboured concerns about precipitating a no deal exit, to vote against the deal. There is safety in numbers.
This was exacerbated by Amber Rudd’s appearance on the Today programme. Saying that parliament could block no deal – a point that has since been hotly contested – has only emboldened Remainers to hold out for something more. They have been given cover by the size of the backlash and the assurance that a vote against the deal is not a vote to take Britain off the edge of a cliff.
With the Treasury, Bank of England and the FCA set to publish forecasts on Brexit, the Prime Minister’s decision to question their validity was also an interesting tactic on Monday this week. She said: “I think it would be interesting for this House to debate the extent to which economic forecasts can be described as facts.”
The Telegraph reports that, according to the Treasury’s analysis, under May’s deal GDP will be 1 or 2 per cent lower after 15 years than remaining in the EU. So, the PM downplaying forecasts is understandable in that sense. But that projection is more favourable than for the Brexiteers’ preferred Canada-style free trade deal, and markedly better than the 7.6 per cent drop in GDP over the same period forecasted for no deal. So once again, May is trying to have her cake and eat it – questioning the validity of stats in one sense and then seeking to rely on them the next.
Conversely, the message from No10 to Brexiteers that a vote against could lead to no Brexit at all appeared to flatly contradict its message to Remainers. And after May later ruled out holding a second referendum in the event of defeat, she is relying on many unknowns for that to even hold true.
Do not underestimate the size of these miscalculations. As 11 December nears, there will, of course, be some who change their minds. But with nearly 100 Tory MPs set to vote against, the DUP not budging, Labour all but united in opposition (and the Lib Dems and the SNP to boot), a truly sizeable defeat in the Commons is now likely.
Anything nearing three digits, surely, would make Theresa May’s position all but untenable. Halve that and she is still in trouble. Of course, in normal times, any defeat could be curtains. And would the European Commission, whose senior officials have been united in saying take it or leave it, really offer more to a Prime Minister so humbled by her own Parliament? And could she really overturn a defeat of the magnitude that’s expected?
And so, to the Prime Minister’s tour of Britain, and the newly touted Brexit debate with Jeremy Corbyn. Firstly, such a debate is not going to be fought on the terms that May would want. She wants to focus on the substance of the Withdrawal Agreement in a bid to expose her counterpart’s lack of knowledge on the finer details. But the British people aren’t going to get animated when Corbyn fails to go toe to toe on the minutiae of a deal that they already have heard multiple times is a dead duck. Instead, the Labour leader will focus on the big picture and continue to punch the Brexit bruise by citing any number of incendiary comments from Tory MPs opposed to the deal.
The debate itself has now been seized on by other parties and Brexiteers who want representation. And given the intransigence of those on her own side, the MPs in Corbyn’s party are the ones – like Lisa Nandy and Gareth Snell – who she needs to win over. No10 has also cited holding the debate on Sunday 9 December, an evening which will include the final of I’m a Celebrity, Doctor Who, Strictly Come Dancing and David Attenborough’s hugely popular series Dynasties.
Squaring the Brexit circle would be a tough challenge for any Prime Minister. It is not clear that there is a consensus for any possible consequence of defeat in the House of Commons. But No10’s messaging has made the task all the more difficult by its incoherence.
The PM’s Brexit deal has been on life support since day one. It might be time to pull the plug.