LONDON — When Theresa May’s Brexit deal was defeated by a record margin of 230 House of Commons votes in January, some commentators predicted that it little to no chance of ever getting through the UK parliament.
However, there is a growing belief among Conservative MPs that the prime minister’s deal — probably with a few tweaks granted by the European Union — will eventually pass before the end of March.
“The atmosphere has calmed. A growing number of colleagues have turned around in recent days and told me: ‘Do you know what, I think this deal is going to go through,” said one Tory MP who sits on the Brexit Delivery Group (BDG) of Conservative MPs.
“There doesn’t seem to be the same heat in parliament as there was before Christmas.”
They added: “When I look at my colleagues — even Brexiteers — I see exhaustion, weariness and battle fatigue. It’s difficult to stay angry for such a long time. We are all tired of being so angry.”
A growing number of colleagues have turned around in recent days and told me: ‘Do you know what, I think this deal is going to go through.
The BDG, which comprises around 50 Tory MPs, is made up of Remain and Leave supporters, and is united in its efforts to try and gather party support for a “negotiated settlement” — in other words, a deal closely resembling the prime minister’s existing one.
Members of this group expect growing numbers of Conservative MPs to ultimately back the prime minister’s deal in the coming weeks.
Why? Because if they don’t back the deal, then many Conservative MPs now realise that they could end up with either a long Brexit delay, a damaging no-deal Brexit, or even no Brexit at all.
“The dynamics among the the ERG [pro-Brexit European Research Group of Conservative MPs] is changing,” one moderate Conservative MP told Business Insider.
“The ERG are splintering and lots of them are coming around to the deal through gritted teeth.”
[Pro-Brexit MPs] are splintering and lots of them are coming around to the deal through gritted teeth.
They added: “I say to them ‘look you’re playing a really dangerous game here that may end up in no Brexit at all’ and while some of them still aren’t listening to that argument, lots of them are now starting to.”
Conversely, the greater the chances of a softer Brexit become, the more likely Conservative MPs believe that May’s original deal will pass. The Labour Party has offered to back May if she pivots to a softer exit from the EU.
“I’m saying to them [in the ERG] look if you don’t back this deal then the prime minister will be forced to reach across the aisle and do a deal with the opposition which you will like far less.
“It’s starting to dawn on them now that the best Brexit they are likely to get is the one they voted against last month.”
Will no-deal be taken off the table?
While most Conservative MPs oppose leaving the EU without a deal, for a committed bloc of pro-Brexit Conservative MPs, a no-deal exit is the only outcome that can prevent the party splitting.
For others though, the idea that a no-deal exit would unite the party is ludicrous.
“The ironic thing is that it wouldn’t save the party, it’d tear us in two. And we’d get absolutely thrashed at the next election because it would f*** the economy,” one prominent Conservative backbencher told Business Insider.
If we allow a no-deal Brexit] we’d get absolutely thrashed at the next election because it would f*** the economy.
However, despite the fears of a no-deal outcome, four factors suggest that a no-deal Brexit will not be allowed to happen.
Firstly, simple parliamentary arithmetic: There are at most around 75 MPs from a total of 650 who would be happy for the UK to leave the EU without a deal next month. The remainder are opposed to the idea, and there is a working majority in parliament that would seek to prevent such an outcome.
Secondly, Olly Robbins — the civil servant who is May’s closest Brexit adviser — was overheard in a Brussels bar this week saying he believed MPs would have to choose between the prime minister’s plan and a potentially long Article 50 extension.
Thirdly, there is a good chance a backbench plot to take no-deal off the table will succeed at the end of this month.
The “Cooper amendment” — an earlier form of which was only narrowly defeated in January — seeks to force the prime minister to put the option of delaying Brexit before the House of Commons in order to prevent the immediate threat of a no-deal Brexit. With just weeks to go until the Article 50 process comes to an end, the chances of the amendment tabled by Labour MP Yvette Cooper passing look high.
There is going to be a lot of Conservative MPs thinking ‘I can’t be part of this any more.’
Finally, ministers could resign in order to prevent no-deal, some of them possibly giving up the government whip to vote for the Cooper amendment on February 27. Senior Tory MP Dominic Grieve said this week that up to a dozen could be prepared to do so, including several secretaries of state. May would need to everything in her power to avoid that happening.
“February 27th is the crunch point,” one senior Conservative backbencher told BI.
“That’s going to be the moment when the government’s Brexit policy is defined then and if no deal is still on the table and the default policy at that point, then there is going to be a lot of Conservative MPs thinking ‘I can’t be part of this any more.'”
However, other Conservative MPs still doubt that pro-EU ministers will do anything when it comes to the crunch.
One rebel MP told BI that while many Conservative backbenchers were “doing the best we can” to prevent a no-deal Brexit, they were frustrated by the reluctance of like-minded Cabinet ministers to take a stand on the issue.
“It’s like that World War 1 phrase, ‘lions led by donkeys’,” they said.
‘We are very close to a situation where Brexit could collapse’
If a no-deal is taken off the table, it forces Conservative MPs to confront an altogether different choice to the one they are contemplating now. Not between a deal and no deal, but between a deal and an Article 50 extension of several months.
The truth is that there is a real appetite among most Conservative MPs to get Brexit over with, not least because of fear of a backlash from their constituents. They fear it could ultimately lead to the collapse of Brexit altogether.
“We are very close to a situation where Brexit could collapse,”said the Remain-supporting Tory MP who voted for May’s deal.
“Even our own ardent Remainers could see the dangers of that,” they added. “It would spell the end of the Conservative party.”
Some MPs, such as Nick Boles, who Conservative members believe have attempted to frustrate Brexit in their efforts to take no-deal off the table, are facing deselection from angry local associations.
“There is extreme discomfort about the moves being made against Nick Boles and others on all wings of the party,” one moderate MP told BI.
“We can all see what’s happening in the Labour Party with Momentum trying to force out Labour MPs and we don’t want to go down that route. We’re not the nasty party.”
Fears of further such division could drive large numbers of MPs to eventually support the prime minister’s deal.
And even if it doesn’t, many Conservative MPs believe that Labour MPs could ultimately save the day for May’s deal.
Fourteen Labour MPs, including eight shadow ministers, already defied the party whip in January to vote with the government against the Cooper amendment which could have resulted in an Article 50 extension, fearful it would be seen as an effort to frustrate Brexit.
Many more would likely break rank if forced to choose between May’s deal or a no-deal exit.
“Labour MPs in marginal seats are boxed into a corner at the moment, between the rock of local associations threatening to deselect them if they back their deal and constituents who just want it all over,” one Conservative MP tells BI.
“But ultimately I think they will decide that they can’t allow the catastrophe of a no-deal to go ahead.”
The route to a majority for May’s deal is not straightforward and the hurdles the prime minister has to jump may in the end prove too high.
But either by accident, or design, growing numbers of Conservative MPs now believe that May will eventually get what she wants.
“Whether this has been a cunning strategy in Downing Street from Day 1 is up for debate,” one Conservative MP tells BI.
“But it may well be where we end up.”
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