Comment by Steven Paterson, Former MP for Stirling
The cheers that accompanied the successful landing by the NASA InSight Mission on the surface of Mars must have seemed a long way from the sombre House of Commons yesterday, but perhaps there are parallels that can be drawn.
After all, both the NASA InSight spacecraft and the Prime Minister’s Brexit plan have been hurtling through the void for months, subject to dangers unknown and an end uncertain. One tiny miscalculation and the successful touchdown in a world of opportunity is instantly transformed into a mangled trail of scorched wreckage.
Which brings me neatly to where we have reached with Prime Minister Theresa May’s Brexit proposals, which have more chance of being successfully delivered safely to another planet than they do of being endorsed by the House of Commons in two weeks’ time when the Meaningful Vote is held in Parliament.
So, what on earth is going on? I mean, there can be no way the Prime Minister does not recognise what dozens and dozens of MPs told her during yesterday’s statement: that there is no chance whatsoever of this deal passing the current House of Commons. Yet the Prime Minister has set off touring the country for support for her deal wherever she can find it, which can only mean that she sees pressure from outwith Parliament as her best chance of success.
But it seems unlikely that even the most extreme external pressure can change the voting behaviour of as many as 95 MPs who would be required to abandon previously stated positions against the Prime Minister’s deal. No doubt the employment of the fabled dark arts of the Tory Whips’ Office will shake a few into line with the threat of titillating secrets they’d rather not share with the world finding their way onto the front pages of the merciless tabloid press, and a few more will be offered grand titles and plush seats in the bloated House of Lords in return for quietly abandoning their principles, but winning over 95-odd MPs in this way does seem an insurmountable target.
And that’s not least because many MPs will be under severe pressure from rabid Brexiters in their own constituencies. As was pointed out to me yesterday, Stirling’s own Tory MP Stephen Kerr is currently being excoriated by Brexit-supporting Tory members on his social media pages over his betrayal in expressing fulsome backing for Mrs May’s deal in the Stirling Observer last week. Many of these Tory supporters are openly threatening Mr Kerr – reminding him about his wafer-thin 148 majority – and making the explicit threat not to vote for him next time. It will, therefore, be interesting to see if his loudly-trumpeted loyalty to the Prime Minister of last week survives the next two weeks until the Meaningful Vote takes place in Parliament.
But if lordly titles and Whips’ Office thumbscrews can’t get the Prime Minister those 95-odd further MPs she needs to back her deal, what is she up to in her Brexit deal sales tour of the UK? It is widely reported that following the seemingly inevitable defeat of her proposals in the Meaningful Vote, Mrs May intends to simply table another such vote in January. With time having almost expired by then, her deal would be juxtaposed with the looming no deal disaster, and pressure could be ratcheted up to breaking point on those still opposing the deal to cave in or face the consequences with their electorate of the no deal disaster they would be blamed for delivering. The Prime Minister’s deal, or no deal at all.
However, perhaps Mrs May has just given up getting the deal through this parliament. Yes, it would be a bold move for a Prime Minister who lost her majority to try to win it back in the current circumstances by shocking everyone and calling a fresh general election, but can we really rule this out for a desperate Prime Minster completely out of cards to play? The DUP have taken the money and run, leaving the current administration at the mercy of the House of Commons, and her own backbenches are stuffed with those despairing at where she has led them. But the opinion polls – in England at any rate – suggest she’d have a fighting chance of winning a general election because Jeremy Corbyn is perceived as the unpalatable and unelectable alternative south of the border by just enough of the people.
Or is the calculation even that a new referendum will indeed be required to break the stalemate and provide the political mandate that looks impossible to get through the usual means of a parliamentary vote?
It was over an hour into the Prime Minister’s statement on Monday before any MP on any side of the chamber was prepared to offer her any backing, and that is not a situation that can endure. The Prime Minister of a minority administration now faces total defeat over the single biggest issue of this parliament, the issue over which she called a general election and subsequently lost her party’s majority.
She cannot seriously expect to survive that, can she? Well, perhaps. On the Planet Brexit, anything seems possible.