How Theresa May united a bitterly divided Conservative party against her Brexit deal

British prime minister Theresa May. Photo: Ben Stansall – WPA Pool/ Getty Images.
  • The massive and unexpected scale of Theresa May’s defeat this week reflects an unholy alliance between two opposing Tory factions: pro-Europeans and Brexiteers.
  • Both sides think that voting down the deal will help deliver their preferred form of Brexit.
  • Only one of these factions can win. Which will it be?

LONDON – To understand the huge and unexpected 230-vote margin by which Theresa May’s Brexit plan was defeated in parliament this week, you need to understand the unlikeliest of alliances within the current Conservative party.

On the one hand, there are the pro-Europe Tory MPs who opposed Theresa May’s deal because they seek a softer Brexit, or indeed no Brexit at all. On the other hand, there are the hardcore Tory Brexiteers, who voted down the deal because they are fiercely opposed to the Irish backstop, a measure which they say could keep the UK tied too closely tied to Europe and isolate Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK.

Although bitterly divided on Brexit, Conservative MPs seem to agree on just one thing. Even a better Whips’ Office – which has been criticised by some MPs for its lack of experience – could have done little to prevent Tuesday’s cataclysmic defeat. The problem was the deal itself.

“It was an impossible deal to sell. Why the prime minister put it to the Commons mystifies me,” said a member of the European Research Group of hardline Brexit-supporting Tory MPs.

Even Tory MPs who voted with the government agreed. “Francis Urquhart on steroids couldn’t have won this vote,” ,” said one who supported the prime minister’s deal, a reference to the terrifying and skilful whip in the original UK TV version of House of Cards. “The prime minister was assailed on all sides.”

But that is where the unity of opinion on Brexit ends. Both the main Conservative factions opposed to the deal – softer pro-Europeans and hard Brexiteers – believe that voting against the deal means they can achieve something closer to their preferred form of Brexit.

However, only one of these factions can be right. Which is it?

Does May’s defeat push the UK towards a softer Brexit?

Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May speaks to the media as she launches the NHS Long Term Plan at Alder Hey Children's Hospital in Liverpool, Britain January 7, 2019Anthony Devlin / Pool via `ReutersBritain’s Prime Minister Theresa May speaks to the media as she launches the NHS Long Term Plan at Alder Hey Children’s Hospital in Liverpool, Britain January 7, 2019

There is a growing consensus among Conservative MPs and ministers that the size of opposition to May’s deal means one thing: The UK is heading for a softer Brexit.

Why? Because most of the 432-strong opposition to the deal came from MPs who support a more moderate form of Brexit than May’s deal, rather than a harder version. The 50 or 60 MPs who number the European Research Group of hardline Brexiteers look relatively small compared to rest of the deal’s opponents, and increasingly isolated.

Tellingly, an amendment to the deal brought forward by a leading Brexiteer received the backing of just 24 MPs.

“The really important point about the scale of the defeat is that it’s no longer about appeasing the European Research Group [of hardline Brexiteers],” said one Remain-supporting former minister who voted against the deal.

“It just gives a lie to the view that changing the backstop will make it acceptable to parliament,” they added.

Another MP said the ERG looked isolated and that the direction of travel was moving against it, especially after its leading members Jacob Rees-Mogg and Steve Baker orchestrated a failed coup against the prime minister before Christmas.

“The Tory parliamentary party has always had different groups – we’re a broad church,” they said.

“But we have allowed to develop a group that behaves like a party within a party. When you allow that to happen, it’s a problem.”

Instead of seeking to appease the ERG, several MPs said the prime minister could be forced to consider a deal which can count on the support of Labour MPs as well as more moderate Conservatives, perhaps involving a customs union membership.

Such a move would risk Cabinet resignations and splitting the Conservative party in two, but many believe it is increasingly the only viable way to secure the support of parliament. Others support a second referendum, and Labour is still seeking a general election.

As for the ERG, even its members acknowledge that their pursuit of an ideologically pure Brexit could result in a softer version than if they had supported May’s deal.

“Of course we realise there are risks involved in this strategy,” said one prominent member.

“Of course it would have been easier to vote for the deal as it is.

“But when you have campaigned for something for years, you are simply not willing to compromise on that.”

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