This week’s papers have been full of speculation that the Prime Minister is ready to give in and let Labour claim victory, by conceding that the UK could stay in the EU customs union.
The government has been desperate to avoid any talk of Brexit ahead of English local elections, the results of which will unfold over the course of today. Fittingly for a party that made its internal anguish over Europe the country’s problem, the country is giving it right back: on the doorsteps, voters have been spoiling to punish the Tories for failing to deliver Brexit. The only question is how much of a disaster today’s results will be.
But once the losses have been totted up, ministers will be desperate to pick at the wound again – because even greater electoral disasters are looming. Polls suggest the Tories will be crushed in European elections at the end of May. Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party will easily top the poll, and so dire is the mood that some Tory candidates are rumoured to be ready to vote for someone else, rather than themselves.
Beyond the euro elections, an even bigger threat has appeared on the horizon, now that Fiona Onasanya has become the first MP to be thrown out by her constituents. The ex-Labour parliamentarian lost a recall petition after being jailed for perverting the course of justice in a speeding case, triggering a by-election in her Peterborough constituency. Labour won the seat by just 607 votes, and it voted by 60 per cent to leave the EU. The contest is another gift to Farage’s Brexit party.
At this week’s cabinet meeting, there was bracing honesty from the Prime Minister and her loyal lieutenants: if Brexit is going to be saved, the Tories will have to wave the white flag and let Labour be the heroes. A customs union is a price worth paying to avoid electoral humiliation, which will be compounded if Brexit delays continue and the risk of a second EU referendum grows. So why, if Theresa May is ready to give up, might a Brexit deal still be out of reach?
First of all, Labour might not be interested. Why would Labour spare the Tories a drubbing at the polls? And as much as Jeremy Corbyn might want to deliver Brexit, he must know that by agreeing to the government’s deal – even one he’s re-written – he risks alienating most of his electorate and half of his MPs. A lot has been made of Eurosceptic Labour spinner Seumas Milne’s influence over his boss, but if Corbyn wants an election that can make him Prime Minister, he has to go into it with Remainers prepared to vote for him.
Likewise, the government only wants a deal it can get through parliament. Is a customs union Brexit that deal? Scores of Labour MPs will only back it if it has a second EU referendum attached. Scores of Tory MPs won’t back it at all. A cross-party compromise gets the government closer to a majority, but victory is far from certain.
If no deal is done by the middle of next week, the government will run out of time to introduce the Withdrawal Agreement and Implementation Bill – legislation that would put a Brexit deal into law – before European elections. Downing Street hoped putting the implementation cart before the ratification horse might help get a Brexit vote through the Commons. But it won’t risk being defeated on the WAB if Labour isn’t on board.
The next step would be more votes to try narrow the alternative options. A Tory collapse in European elections and in Peterborough would also likely mean the leadership election that Brexiteers so badly want. Tory MPs predict that the final two candidates will be Boris Johnson versus one of Jeremy Hunt, Michael Gove or Dominic Raab – in other words, a Brexiteer against an even more staunch Brexiteer. And an election could still be inevitable. What either of those things would do to the Brexit process in London and Brussels is anyone’s guess. We aren’t out of the desert yet. Keep on walking.