This is an oddly familiar situation. Earlier this year, a British prime minister took a deal to the House of Commons that would take the UK out of the European Union, end the seizure that had gripped political life for three years and allow the country to move on. At the time people thought the Conservatives would hold their noses and vote it through, yet three times it was rejected.
What makes Boris Johnson’s deal any more likely to succeed than Theresa May’s?
As a solution to Parliament’s absurd Brexit arithmetic - that there’s only ever a majority against something - it is no better. Hard Brexiters prefer it to May’s, but it’s equally less palatable to Tory moderates and Labour leavers, and the DUP still won’t support it.
But as a narrative, Johnson’s deal is far superior. It emerged at the last minute as a hard-won, against-the-odds compromise between formerly implacable foes; May’s was cast as a one-sided, poorly-negotiated, worst-of-both-worlds fudge.
For this narrative to develop, the EU and the electorate needed to believe that the UK was on a collision course with disaster, and that Johnson would not swerve.
This isn’t to say that everything that’s happened to create this impression was somehow intentional - the prorogation/Supreme Court debacle wasn’t exactly Johnson’s finest hour - but neither was it entirely accidental. Pantomime villain Dominic Cummings and Geoffrey Cox’s Shakespearean "this is a dead Parliament" speech were well deployed to this end.
In any case, the result of the last-chance, against-the-odds narrative is to make Johnson’s deal much more likely to pass than May’s ever was. It will be a tight squeeze, but whether enough MPs will back it in the final analysis is still anyone’s guess.
Can the DUP be persuaded to abstain, or will they vote against and bring a bunch of ERG Tories with them? How many expelled Tories will do business with Johnson? How many Labour MPs will rebel, or at least refuse to vote against the deal?
Deal or no deal, we’re still having an election
Whether the deal passes or not, Boris Johnson (and the EU for that matter) come out of this well for the inevitable general election - the PM has knocked the stuffing out of the suggestion that he was unbendingly for no deal.
The Brexit Party and Lib Dems have already rejected the deal as they pursue their purist goals, but Johnson’s negotiating coup knocks some of the wind out of both their campaigns, because it defangs their respective bogeymen - a soft Brexit and a no deal.
Labour is damned if they do and damned if they don’t. If they support the deal, then Boris goes into the election as the hero who got Brexit done where May failed. If they oppose it, they seem like the obstructionists keeping us trapped in this Brexit limbo forever.
Ironically, Corbyn would almost certainly prefer the deal to pass, all other things being equal, so that he could campaign in a general election on the basis of Labour’s social justice manifesto rather than on its Brexit tightrope policy. But he can’t risk shying away from the commitment to a second referendum that he conceded to the overwhelmingly Remain-supporting Parliamentary Labour Party.
A second referendum is indeed still an option, and supporting an amendment calling for one might be Corbyn’s best bet. Maybe Johnson would back it if Parliament rejects the deal as it is, as it would allow him to keep his mantle as ‘protector of democracy’/‘deal-making hero’, but don’t count on it.
So despite the progress of the last week, all options still remain on the table, including no deal and no Brexit - Johnson still insists we are going out in two weeks, come what may. It will be an electrifying couple of days in Westminster as MPs thrash it out.
But ultimately, even if they back the deal and we leave on October 31, we can’t really say Brexit is over. If the future relationship negotiations are anything like as fraught as the withdrawal negotiations have been, we could be here for some time yet.
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