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Is there a Brexit deal that MPs would back?

With less than two months remaining before Brexit, is it possible for MPs to agree on a deal that the EU will back? Credit: Parliament

With less than two months remaining before the official moment of Brexit, some of us are feeling a bit emotional, given how little we yet know about whether there will be an abrupt rupture without a deal, or a consensual formation of a new partnership, or a delay, or even a cancellation.

Which is probably why I attributed Churchillian rhetorical power to this contribution to my show last night from the business secretary, Greg Clark, who is not normally regarded as one of the world's great orators:

"Part of our national reputation is that at times of great difficulty for this country, Parliament has come together. Internationally, the reputation for stability of this country for a pragmatic approach to policy is one of our core strengths. It’s recognised around the world, and I think now’s the time to play that card.”

Business Secretary Greg Clark says he wants to see unity in Parliament. Credit: Peston/ITV

OK, it's true. I am going a bit soft in the head - because I hate this cancerous uncertainty.

So it was the substance of the arguments made by Clark and my other guests - Labour frontbencher Jon Trickett, plus his backbench colleagues Lisa Nandy and Peter Kyle, and the Tories Sir Oliver Letwin and Nadine Dorries - that mattered more.

The significance of Clark's emphasis on this country's reputation for shrewd pragmatism, and eschewing of divisive ideology, is that he is saying that it is time for the Prime Minister to surrender some of her Brexit red lines so that she can put a plan to Parliament that would - in his words - command a "substantial majority".

Strikingly Nandy said even more explicitly that it was time for Corbyn and Labour to abandon their red lines and strike a Brexit compromise with the Government.

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And what Trickett said - about Labour's openness to negotiations on safeguarding and enhancing workers' rights, which Clark is leading for the Government - reinforced my view that in both parties there are prominent figures who are open to putting nation before faction in belatedly trying to sort out this Brexit mess.

But on what core would a cross-party compromise rest?

Well it was clear last night - and with my hourly conversations with MPs from all sides - that it would include permanent membership of the customs union.

And when I put this Clark, he was not dismissive:

"I think it’s reasonable going into discussions to listen to people’s views and to see where the majority is in the House of Commons".

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There is only one problem.

The prime minister has been redoubling her rhetoric against customs-union membership, and although there has been a theoretical route for her to fashion a vote-winning, customs-union-based Brexit deal, she is now on a mission to Brussels to obliterate that route.

The point is that, for the EU, the backstop - which includes customs-union membership for the whole UK as one of the temporary devices to keep open the border on the island of Ireland - was always seen as a possible bridge to permanent customs-union membership.

But in underwriting the Brady amendment that calls for the backstop to be replaced by unspecified "alternative arrangements" she is explicitly blowing up that bridge.

Theresa May is now on a mission to Brussels to gain concessions. Credit: Parliament

Why?

Because the ERG Brexiter minority in her party will never be reconciled to membership of the customs union.

Even Nadine Dorries - who these days is an ERG wet, and is rather scathing of the Brexiter ultras - said last night she would rather have an abrupt no-deal Brexit in preference to a softer customs-union based one.

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So the PM has calculated that the customs-union-based Brexit deal that would win a cross-party majority in the Commons would lead to the break up of her party - and she has decided not to risk the fission of the party that is her home.

But this may be a dangerous miscalculation, and not only because Sir Oliver Letwin may have been correct last night that her attempt to follow the Brady bunch and scrap the backstop is likely to precipitate a no-deal Brexit that he thinks would wreak havoc for the country and eviscerate support for the Tory Party.

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It may also achieve precisely the opposite of her primary aim, namely maintaining the unity and integrity of the Tory party - because in keeping the Brexiter ultras on board, she may provoke many tens of centre-ground Tory MPs into open insurrection.