Change sneaks up on you.
Certainly I was surprised that my reading of Theresa May’s statement following her heavy defeat on the Meaningful Vote on Tuesday was out-of-step with many others.
While they spoke and wrote about how her reaching across the aisle was going to lead to splits in the Tories because many would not accept the softening of Brexit that implied, I had worked on the basis it was simply a ruse to get her to a more credible defence of “my deal or no-deal”.
[let’s ignore any colleagues who might argue that my cynicism is long-standing]
But this difference of opinion is worth exploring further, since it will have a material impact on how this develops.
At face-value, May’s offer to consult with all parts of Parliament is a logical consequence of the clear blockage with the Meaningful Vote: hands of friendship and collaboration have to be extended if that 230 majority is to be overturned.
A loss that big cannot be dealt with by tinkering at the edges, but by major re-engineering.
If we assume that the EU is not going to accept any softening of the backstop arrangements (and it has no good reason to), then the only option that will win a substantial number of votes in the Commons is a move towards a soft Brexit: staying in the Customs Union or Single Market, or both.
That would appeal to a lot of opposition MPs, while keeping moderate Tories on-board with keeping on leaving the EU.
The problems are obviously two-fold.
For the less-moderate part of the Conservatives this would be the (not particularly) thin end of a (very) thick wedge, robbing them of the clean break/hard Brexit that had appeared to be largely locked in. Quite aside from the wilder parts of the ERG with their no-deal preferences, it would be hard for other MPs in the party to accept such a big shift in policy, especially if it was done with the support of the opposition.
The other problem is Theresa May herself.
Her personal ambivalence about the EU has long been clear, but on free movement she has been inflexible: that must end and she will accept almost any price to achieve that (hence no Single Market membership in any of her plans).
This is really where I came in to it: her statements on Tuesday and Wednesday did talk about consultation, but also set out red lines.
Number 10 is well-aware of the risks to party unity that this process contains and will not have offered it without thought. That Jeremy Corbyn refuses to participate makes life all the easier.
Given May’s inflexibility to date and the constraints on her within her own party – and let’s not forget how much this process has been driven by party politics so far – it seems not unreasonable to assume that, ahem, nothing has changed.
The aim appears to me to be to demonstrate that Parliament has been engaged in good faith, but sadly it has been unable to find a different compromise that secures a majority, so we’re back to the only text on the table, which happens to be Theresa May’s. In short: my deal, or no-deal.
Even if this isn’t the intention it is likely to be the effect: Parliament has yet to explicitly vote on different options, and the government might be wary of letting it, but there’s no immediate reason to think that a majority can be rounded up for anything except not wanting a no-deal. Only 71 Labour MPs signed up to a second referendum, in the most obvious example of rhetoric getting ahead of votes.
Indeed, that ‘ruling out no-deal’ is still a live topic in Parliament suggests that there is a way to go on building understanding of how Article 50 works: it can be dome, but there are radically different ways to go about it, some of which you might not like.
We’ll find out soon enough how this plays out: May has to give a statement to the Commons on Monday and time requires rapid movement on this. Whatever the outcome, there will be many more chances to evaluate how much everyone trusts each other in finding ways out of the morass.