for her Brexit deal. It was inevitable, therefore, that this week’s agreement on, and publication of, the 26-page political declaration on the future EU-UK partnership should have been widely treated as another step in her uphill battle to assemble an elusive majority to get her Brexit deal through parliament.
That was certainly the way that No 10 handled the announcement that the declaration had been agreed after the prime minister’s trip to Brussels on Wednesday. Mrs May used all the weapons available to her to make a sale to MPs on her return: a social media buildup in the morning; a televised appearance in Downing Street in time for the lunchtime bulletins; and, in the afternoon, another marathon question-and-answer session at the Commons dispatch box. Mrs May had used these tactics to her advantage last week – her ratings had risen sharply. Now, with a political wind behind her, and exploiting an abject few days for her “Dad’s Army” nationalist critics, she was clearly determined to turn the screws on longtime hard Brexiters in the Conservative party.
The Commons session was therefore notable for two things. First, Labour and the other opposition parties were largely onlookers. Second, by corollary, the focus was blue on blue, Tory on Tory, and occasionally between Mrs May and the DUP. At times, the session felt like a private negotiating session between Tory backbenchers and the prime minister. It was clear that Mrs May has softened bits of wording on Northern Ireland in an effort to swing influential Brexiters like Iain Duncan Smith and Owen Paterson to accept her deal. She also made an explicit offer of further talks to the DUP.
All this is still work in progress, but the strategy is clear and unlikely to alter. It is to use each day to chip away at the resolve and support for hardline Brexiter alternatives to Mrs May’s deal. She will try to tighten that pressure this weekend, with overheated confrontations over fishing with France and over Gibraltarwith Spain on Saturday, before Sunday’s Brussels summit signs off on the deal, perhaps with some further drafting changes. Mrs May will then return to the Commons next week to announce once again that she has delivered on Brexit and that the public now wants to move on.
This is deadly serious politics for Mrs May and her party. But it is not enough – and it isn’t the main issue either. It is not enough because Mrs May needs opposition MPs’ votes too. Until now, though, she has not done enough to woo either Labour or the SNP. True, some work has taken place behind the scenes to try to detach some opposition MPs. But Mrs May has not created the political mood that would be necessary if she really wanted to give Labour waverers the permission to defy their whips and risk deselection challenges by daring to vote for her deal. On the contrary, right from the start of her premiership she has handled Brexit in a manner that has made this impossible. That is why she is still short of the majority she needs.
Her challenge is made tougher by the reality that the political declaration is not a tightly drawn programme but a collection of aspirational generalities. It defers the resolution of crucial issues like single market access, customs union alignment, and the ability to make separate trade deals to the 21-month transition period after the UK departs from the EU next spring. It keeps uncertainty alive on issues like the Northern Ireland border. That makes it a document that cannot be trusted by those who fear a harder Brexit. So, even if Mrs May wins her Commons vote, which is far from certain, her wish for Britain to move on remains aspirational too.
That is why the most important Brexit event on Thursday may have been the Speaker’s explicit backing for a properly amendable “meaningful vote” next month. John Bercow seems set on making sure that MPs can vote on alternatives to Mrs May’s deal, including a second referendum. Mrs May is certainly mounting a big push. But, as long as she is short of support, the way still lies open to a new referendum which could, even now, reverse Brexit altogether.