Theresa May’s big, big Brexit bet

Theresa May is arguably the most cautious and methodical politician of this generation or perhaps any generation.

So it more than beggars belief that today she announced she would be rolling the dice in the biggest parliamentary gamble I can recall being taken by any PM of modern times, by announcing that next Tuesday she will ask MPs to vote a staggering 15 times, on amendments to that important EU Withdrawal Bill which is so central to the UK’s future outside the European Union.

At stake is whether she and her ministers are in charge of Brexit, or whether MPs and Lords will determine our Brexit future.

And tonight the odds of her winning look slim – because rebel Tory MPs, led by Anna Soubry, Nicky Morgan, Dominic Grieve, Antoinette Sandbach and the rest, met and think they have the votes to defeat her.

The point is that they, and Labour, and the Scottish National Party all want the UK to stay in a customs union. And they want a parliamentary vote on whatever Brexit deal she ultimately negotiates with the EU to be “meaningful” in the sense that MPs should be able to instruct her to return to the Brussels negotiating table.

She does not want her hands tied in either respect. But even if a few Labour eurosceptics were to rebel against Corbyn, May will struggle to win.

So on arguably the biggest issue facing the country now or at any recent time, she would become the pawn of parliament, not its leader. To describe her in those circumstances as a lame duck would probably be an insult to the limping quackers.

What’s more, in the event that Labour were to overcome its reluctance to sign up for full single-market membership via joining the EEA club, she would probably lose on that too.

Credit: PA

If the Cabinet had already agreed on a customs negotiating position that was unambiguous and clearly practical, she might stand a chance of picking off some of the rebels.

But as she made clear when she met business leaders tonight, ministers are still some distance from proving to themselves that either a reworked New Customs Partnership (NCP) or a reinvented Max Fac would facilitate the kind of frictionless trade that would deliver growing commerce with the EU and an open border in Ireland – and if they cannot prove it to themselves, there is no chance they will be able to bring round parliament.

And when the whips try to strong arm the Tory rebels into abandoning their principles for the sake of the party, they will legitimately query why the foreign secretary looks set to be allowed to vote against the most important infrastructure project this government will push through – the construction of a third Heathrow runway. Why should they be loyal if his disloyalty will be licensed?

One MP said to me that there is a growing view in the Tory Party that the government is “almost resigned to losing the customs union vote”. I got some sense of that when one of May’s most important ministerial allies made only the feeblest of attempts to persuade me that the government “has the numbers” to enforce its Brexit will.

In a way, that might be rational – since the PM heard (again) tonight from the heads of those big international companies that they would rather have customs union membership than any version of Max Fac or NCP.

But if parliament were to boss her in this way, she would – to use that resonant phrase – be in office but conspicuously not in charge. And with her authority so shattered, with her Brexit red lines scrubbed, could she really survive?

As I said, as a politician this is a bigger bet than she’s ever made.