Squeaky bum time

Not, as in Alex Ferguson’s immortal phrase, with reference to the closing stages of the Premiership season, but with reference to Brexit. Here we are at last, two and a half years after the referendum. This is the deal. It’s make-your-mind-up time.  

It is, by near-universal consent, an unsatisfactory deal. The fact that it is disliked more or less equally by all strands of political opinion could be interpreted as a back-handed compliment to its even-handedness. It is also, clearly, a deal that the EU will not amend or improve upon much, or at all. If Brexit is to take place on 29 March next year, it is this deal or no deal.

On the face of it, the House of Commons is bound to reject the agreement. It is unacceptable to hard-line Tories, the vast majority of the Labour Party, the LibDems, the SNP and the DUP. It should be dead in the water. Yet most commentators, while reiterating this point, are not actually treating the deal as if it was dead in the water. There is a sense that the parliamentary arithmetic may yet change. And there is good reason to believe that it might, now that squeaky bum time is upon us.

Whatever the eventual outcome, some group or groups will be forced to take ownership of it. They will try not to, but the media and the public will insist on it. The months of bluff and bluster are at an end: we are now at a time of accountability. Theresa May and her Government have exclusive ownership of the deal that is on the table. They will stand or fall by it. However precarious this ground, it is arguably more solid than having to take ownership of either no deal or no Brexit.

In remarks attributed to him a few months ago, Michael Gove believes that the one essential outcome is that the UK leaves the EU, as planned, on 29 March. That, to him, is more important than taking a stand over the precise terms of the departure which, in his view, would almost certainly change over the course of time in any event. Until now, most Tory hard-line Brexiteers have angrily disputed this analysis.

But if they carry this opposition through to its promised conclusion and help to defeat the deal, they will not only be making a no-deal exit more likely (which they seem remarkably cavalier about, but for which they would carry most of the opprobrium), they will be making no Brexit more likely. It is easy to envisage a chain of events leading from a rejection of the deal to a second referendum, resulting in a reversal of the outcome of the first referendum. If that happens, it will be a direct consequence of the hard-liners voting down the deal. The most fanatical Brexiteers will have snatched defeat from the jaws of a certain victory, and they will get the blame for it. This may not be the most probable outcome of voting down the deal (but what is? who knows?), but it is distinctly possible. Are Jacob Rees-Mogg and his hoodlums prepared to take ownership of this outcome?

Exactly the same question can be asked of the DUP, a party that has strongly supported Brexit despite most people in Northern Ireland opposing it. Will they want to take the blame for scuppering it? However, for the DUP, there are two other potential outcomes that would cause them nightmares, and of which they may yet have to take ownership. If they vote down the agreement, a no-deal exit becomes more likely and it is hard to see how that could fail to involve some form of hard border in Ireland. Would the DUP like to take ownership of that? The other outcome that becomes more likely is a government led by Jeremy Corbyn. Would the DUP like to take ownership of putting a lifelong supporter of Sinn Fein into Downing Street? The fact is that, for the DUP, all outcomes are bad outcomes – not just the agreement, but all the alternatives to it.

And then there is the Labour party. Until now, Labour has been able to get away with fantasy opposition. The focus on Brexit has, for the moment, taken the spotlight off the ideological chasm within the parliamentary party. Labour has claimed to be united on Brexit, when it plainly isn’t. It has a leader with opinions utterly at variance from those of its Brexit spokesman. It has set six tests for an agreement, spurious and predestined to be unmet, and which it could not possibly negotiate itself if it ever had the opportunity.

But squeaky bum time is now here for the Labour party too, or at least for those of its MPs who are prepared to put the national interest before their party’s interest. It seems probable that the outcome of the House of Commons vote will depend as much upon how many Labour MPs support the Government or abstain as on anything else.

If the consequence of voting down the deal was another referendum, most Labour MPs would be delighted. If the consequence was a Jeremy Corbyn government, some would be ecstatic, although many would have mixed feelings. But if the consequence was a no-deal Brexit, what then? Does the Labour party want to take ownership of the UK crashing out of the EU without a deal, with the potentially catastrophic consequences that could entail?

The difficulty for all these groups – hard-line Tories, the DUP and the Labour party – is that it is impossible to know what will happen next if Theresa May’s deal does not pass the House of Commons. If one consequence was overwhelmingly more likely than the others, then dispositions could be made accordingly. But it isn’t. And that makes individual calculations much harder.

What is certain is that the time for posturing is over. A great many MPs will now be pondering, on their own behalf and on behalf of their grouping or party, exactly what share of blame they may be saddled with, and are prepared to accept. There will be a lot of squeaky bums.