(Bloomberg) — A week ago, Theresa May’s aides expected that by now the prime minister would be reeling from a mass cabinet walkout and a crushing parliamentary defeat. Instead, she’s clung on amid growing signs that opposition to her Brexit deal is eroding.
The prime minister avoided confrontation with her ministers by backing down Tuesday, and agreeing to give Parliament the option of postponing Brexit rather than crashing out without a deal. The muted response of the pro-Brexit wing of her party offered a sign she might yet have a route to a compromise.
Anti-European Conservatives hate the divorce deal May negotiated with Brussels and are pushing her to change it. But in Wednesday’s debate, one of them at least seemed to have heeded May’s warning that continued obstinacy would jeopardize their entire project.
“The choice is no longer perhaps between an imperfect deal and no deal, but between an imperfect deal and no Brexit,” Edward Leigh, a long-standing euroskeptic, told Parliament.
Blood on the Carpet
Brexiteers have repeatedly pushed May toward a harder departure from the European Union. One government aide had suggested last week that some angry Tories might try to trigger a general election if she sought to delay Brexit. The aide had predicted blood on the carpet by this week. Instead, all they could offer Wednesday was a protest, in which 20 members of the pro-Brexit European Research Group voted against May’s concession.
Two weeks earlier, furious at being asked to vote for a motion that rejected a no-deal Brexit, the ERG had delivered a defeat to May. On Wednesday the fight seemed to have gone out of them. Jacob Rees-Mogg, chairman of the ERG, said he was willing to compromise with the prime minister on changes to her deal.
Those comments were a hint that there’s a way May could yet get her deal through, if she can get plausible concessions from the EU on the contentious Irish backstop clause. She won’t be able to please all of the ERG, but if she can win over enough of them, and pick up enough votes from the opposition Labour Party, she might yet succeed.
‘High Noon’ Postponed
May’s hopes with Labour seem to have been helped, paradoxically, by the party’s shift to support a second referendum — something it reaffirmed Wednesday evening. That move has hardened the mood of those Labour MPs who think the party has to back Brexit in order to keep faith with those who supported it. “The decision to leave has been made by the British people,” Caroline Flint told Parliament on Tuesday. “We said in the relevant chapter of our manifesto that we are here to negotiate Brexit, not stop it.”
It’s still far from plain sailing for May. Although only 20 Tories voted against her on Wednesday evening, around 80 more abstained. And in the debate, several reiterated their concerns about May’s Brexit deal.
“I do think that the withdrawal agreement is deeply, deeply flawed and we ought to vote against it,” Bill Cash told the chamber.
“The instruction to everyone in this House was to leave the EU,” said Richard Drax. “Not half-in, half-out, a bit here, a bit there.”
But if May was looking for causes for optimism, they came in the silences. Rees-Mogg made one brief intervention in Wednesday’s debate, and former Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson didn’t speak at all.
The “high noon” moment, once again, has been postponed.