“It might not be 326 that matters”.
According to one cabinet minister, that’s the strange situation that Brexit has led us to.
The government’s ambition is so low – or its hurdles so high – that what No 10 seeks to do on Tuesday is not to win (326 is a majority in the House of Commons), but to reduce the scale of resistance to their central policy that, in the words of another cabinet minister, only the “hardliners oppose”, so that Theresa May can get the rebels down to a “few dozen”, so then they can crack on.
But crack on with what, I hear you ask?
- Government supports Irish backstop change
- A guide to MPs’ Brexit amendments
- No-deal Brexit ‘to leave shelves empty’
The EU has been clear again and again that it won’t budge on the backstop unless the UK “evolves its position”, to use the posh phrase.
In other words it won’t budge until there is a clearer picture from the UK, even though, in the end, budge it well might (NB, shifting a bit is not the same as junking it, before you get too excited, remember).
But reducing the scale of discomfort is important for the government on Tuesday.
That’s why, although Sir Graham Brady’s amendment is unlikely to get through – it doesn’t have the support of the ardent Brexiteer core in the ERG, and maybe or maybe not the DUP, which won’t decide until the morning – ministers are forcing their MPs to do something very weird.
They are trying to make them vote FOR a plan that says the prime minister’s deal needs to be changed, in the hope that message is conveyed strongly across the Channel into continental ears.
And if the level of opposition shrinks to be a molehill rather than a mountain, maybe then, in time, Brussels can conclude there is something worth working with.
Sending a message to Brussels
That is still a huge “if”. And there is also still the possibility on Tuesday that MPs, either through Yvette Cooper’s plan or the less dramatic (in terms of process) idea from Caroline Spelman and Jack Dromey, might vote to try to force No 10 to rule out leaving without a deal at the end of March.
Only Ms Cooper’s plan would actually be binding, and it’s not clear how the government would respond in either case.
But again, that kind of result would send its own message to the rest of the EU – one the prime minister is keen to avoid for fear it would weaken her bargaining hand.
For No 10, the obvious way of ruling out no deal is to back Mrs May’s agreement. But takers for that plan are still, for her, in too short supply.
Parliament may push her in that direction on Tuesday against her will.
But at the risk of depressing you about Tuesday providing a clear conclusion, it is also quite feasible that none of the plans will pass.
After months of saying, “ask us, ask us!”, MPs have a real opportunity to vote for Brexit plans they have brewed up.
But if none of them is able to get a majority, Parliament may yet just prove itself, again, a place where trust is low, tension is high, but agreement is hard to find.
Whisper of a compromise?
Late on Monday evening, maybe, just maybe, there was a sign that all of this Parliamentary turmoil might be about to be usurped by something that has felt until now absolutely out of reach.
Rival factions of the Tory party who until now have been so often trying to knock lumps out of each other, have, we can report, been meeting and talking, trying to thrash out a compromise.
Brexiteers Steve Baker and Jacob Rees-Mogg have met the prime minister alongside former Remainers like Nicky Morgan and Damian Green, accompanied by government ministers like Robert Buckland, the solicitor general.
They have, together, come up with what looks like, at a very early stage, what might be two potential compromises that the Tory party as a group might be able to get around.
Whether they’d get backing from other parties, or the EU, is another question.
But it is a potential way forward, that has lit up Tory messaging groups with emojis of champagne bottles, and claims that it might be the way out of their mess.
You can see the plan for yourself here, or below. Number 10 is not ready to back it yet, although the group of unlikely compadres has discussed it with her.
Nor will it be what MPs vote on, on Tuesday.
But it might, just might, be the start of something – a whisper of a compromise, perhaps, after months and months where division has ruled the day.