“No deal is better than a bad deal,” she said. She may say it againby Steve Bloomfield / January 14, 2019 / Leave a comment
If Theresa May loses tomorrow’s vote on the Withdrawal Agreement she appears to have three options. She could try again, talking up the dangers of no deal while perhaps signalling to Labour MPs that she would toughen up workers’ rights, maybe even back a customs union. The closer it gets to 29th March, the easier—she hopes—this will be.
She could swallow her opposition to a second referendum and decide that the only way to get her Brexit deal passed is by throwing it back to the people.
Or she could hold a general election, hoping that her majority is large enough to force through her preferred flavour of Brexit.
But there is another option—she could back no deal.
May has two priorities: delivering Brexit and remaining as prime minister. Backing no deal could be the only way to achieve both goals.
Before we explore how she could back “no deal,” particularly after making it so clear in recent weeks that it would be damaging to the economy, let’s look at the other options.
A general election would solve nothing. Around a third of her MPs are on the record as opposing her deal, making it impossible to sign up to a manifesto pledge to deliver it. It’s likely that most candidates in potentially winnable seats will also oppose the deal—after all, they will want a future in the Tory Party. Even if she wins a majority, which isn’t impossible, many of those MPs will not back her deal, leaving her back where she started.
A second referendum could work. She could say to the country that she had negotiated the best deal and that parliament had failed in its duty to “respect the will of the people.” Throwing it back to us to decide if we still wanted to press ahead would make some sense. The problem is that she has made it abundantly clear that a second referendum, something she has confusingly called “a politicians’ vote,” would be an outrage. Her language on a new referendum is far more hardline than her language on no deal.
And that’s before we even get into the detail of whether the EU27 would agree to the necessary Article 50 extension, whether enough MPs would back a referendum, whether agreement could be found on the question to be asked (should no deal, for instance, be on the ballot?), who would run the campaign, and whether they would have a hope in hell of actually winning it.
That leaves May’s most likely option—trying again. An attempt is likely to be made and the later she leaves it, the greater the chance it has of succeeding. But it’s still a long-shot. All the reasons why MPs will vote against it the first time around will still exist. Some may switch, but even May’s biggest supporters privately admit that the chances of victory are low.
All of which explains why May could decide that the best way to both deliver Brexit and remain as prime minister is to pivot to “no deal.”
She wouldn’t necessarily call it “no deal.” She could echo the hardline Brexiteers in the ERG and call it a “clean break” or even a “world trade deal.” We’d probably see a return of the meaningless yet jingoistic slogan “red, white and blue Brexit.”
Yes, it will be hard, she would say, but Britain has faced tougher challenges. She’ll invoke the Second World War and the “Blitz spirit,” there might even be a mention of a bulldog. Despite a no deal Brexit being the most divisive event in the country’s recent history (more people oppose it than opposed the Iraq war in 2003), she will make a plea for unity.
She could point out that her government has spent billions of pounds preparing for a no deal, even highlighting the ludicrous fake traffic jam as proof that the country has done it all it can to get ready.
She would also have the support of the majority of the press. The Sun and Express already back no deal. The Telegraph and Mail would comfortably make the switch to no deal for the same reasons as May. The BBC, striving for impartiality, would make sure to balance every expert voice carefully explaining the perils of no deal with a Patrick Minford spouting fake statistics or a David Davis talking about “belief in Britain.”
If May wants to know what such a journey would look like she need only ask her foreign secretary, Jeremy Hunt. An even more ardent Remainer than May was, Hunt comfortably made the transition to Remainer-who-respects-the will-of-the-people in the aftermath of the referendum. But since taking up his new post—and being talked about as a potential prime minister—Hunt has moved even further, comparing the EU to the Soviet Union and suggesting that Britain would “flourish and prosper” under no deal.
May herself has previously suggested that leaving without a deal “wouldn’t be the end of the world.” Most famously, she spent the best part of two years claiming that “No deal is better than a bad deal.” Well, parliament would have decided that the Withdrawal Agreement is a bad deal. No deal, she could therefore argue, is better.
Would cabinet ministers resign? Possibly. But possibly not. Amber Rudd is opposed to “no deal,” but as she has only just returned to cabinet she may convince herself that fixing universal credit is something for which it is worth staying. Phil Hammond is also opposed to “no deal.” Were the chancellor to resign, citing the damage that no deal would do to the economy, it could cause untold damage. Yet Hammond may follow the path taken by Clare Short in 2003. Short, then international development secretary, was vehemently opposed to the Iraq War—she had even called it “reckless” in a BBC interview. But Short was persuaded that, while her views on the war were well-known, she would have an important role to play in the redevelopment of Iraq once the war was over. Hammond’s ego could be stroked in a similar way—look Phil, we know you don’t like this, but we’ll need your cool, analytical brain and steady hands to steer us through these choppy waters.
The majority of MPs will still be opposed to no deal, but that doesn’t matter. There would be no need for a vote to back May’s new plan—the UK is leaving on 29th March, deal or no deal. And that’s why, when it comes down to a choice between delaying Brexit and leaving without a deal, Theresa May could well end up deciding that no deal is her only option.