Boris Johnson has achieved the impossible, and struck a new Brexit deal without the backstop. He has done it by turning the backstop into an NI-only frontstop, as Anand Menon says, which means rehashing an old plan he previously committed to never adopting, sacrificing DUP support and undermining a key tenet of the Conservative and Unionist Party. And yet however much of a botch job this proposal may be, it is easy to see how the Prime Minister is now in a win-win situation: get Commons approval tomorrow and he can say he ‘got Brexit done’; lose the vote, and he can tell the country that the traitorous Remainer MPs wouldn’t let him deliver Brexit and he should be given a majority to finalise the agreement. Whether that appeal to the nation works is no sure thing, but no electoral strategy is certain to succeed and it does fit in nicely with the one he has chosen to pursue.
Still, we must go through the obligatory motions and speculate on what will happen next in this endless, barely plausible, will-they-won’t-they melodrama. Labour MPs will be issued a three-line whip to vote against the Johnson deal, which Jeremy Corbyn describes as “sell out” and “worse than Theresa May’s”. The pressure is on those Labour MPs representing Leave seats who have made clear that they want to vote for a deal, particularly the 19 signatories to a recent letter to the EU and the 26 who wrote to Corbyn last summer urging the leadership to back a Brexit deal before October 31st. So far, those ‘inbetweeners’ have been remarkably quiet. No doubt they are digesting the details of the offer and weighing up pros and cons ahead of a vote that could define their political lives.
Jim Fitzpatrick, Kevin Barron and John Mann are retiring MPs who voted for May’s deal, so that’s three likely in the bag. Ronnie Campbell has also said he will back the deal (although John McDonnell promises to have a word with him). Graham Stringer, another Labour Leaver who didn’t vote for May’s deal, has confirmed that he will consider voting in favour if it looks like this is the last opportunity to approve Brexit. Dennis Skinner and Kelvin Hopkins are worth keeping an eye on. Kate Hoey, the party’s most ardent Brexiteer, is set to vote against the deal along with the DUP. The others – Lisa Nandy, Stephen Kinnock, etc – have been provided with cover to vote against Brexit again, as the new deal has put “level playing field” commitments in the non-binding political declaration rather than the legally-binding part.
Owen Jones is running a one-man public whipping operation via tweets relaying that, according to a a senior source, Labour’s national executive committee will bar any pro-deal MP from standing again “if the whip isn’t withdrawn first”. Neither of those consequences are likely. Withdrawing the whip isn’t Corbyn’s style as it is Johnson’s, especially when some of these MPs have just been unanimously reselected by their local parties. And Labour’s NEC has not discussed refusing to rubber stamp the reselections. But the pressure is on – that much is certain. Sign up to LabourList’s morning email for everything Labour, every weekday morning.