12 Feb 2019

Brexit: Cooper is reborn and Theresa hands out sweets

Just as senior figures in the EU openly give up on the pro-Remain dream, some pro-Remain forces are hoping that they have a massive opportunity in their grasp.

The Cooper amendment, now due to be debated and voted on two weeks from now on 27th Feburary, would, its authors hope, force the government to ask for an extension of Article 50.  The Brexit date would move back from March 29th. How far back is a question the Cooper ploy leaves open but it is, in the end, a matter for the EU27 to decide on. It’s in their gift. Figures in the Elysee and other power centres of Europe have recently been talking of telling the UK that only a 12 month delay or longer would be considered.

In those 12 months, Remainers think, the whole debate about Brexit would turn more in their favour. Brexit could slide from view in a series of A50 extensions. A referendum could come up the popularity scale again after a poor few weeks sliding down it. EU figures talk about how they might themselves sprout forth some reforms that make the EU more appealing to a UK audience.

The Cooper clan is now clear that they have one moment to fire their bullet and equally clear that they do not have the numbers to pull off victory right now. Their strategy depends on some 20 or so ministers and aides resigning en masse to back their proposal. The resignations would include 4 or 5 Cabinet ministers as well as ministers from the junior and mid-government ranks.

Will they really jump? Are they already tidying up their desks? Would the EU tell a government (albeit one that is crumbling at that point) it must stay in the EU against the government’s stated collective will for a year beyond the agreed date? Could a long A50 extension stir a massive reaction which sweeps aside the Remainers and seals a “no deal” Brexit?.

Fortunes can spin round very quickly in the Brexit drama but it was striking today that the snippiest, most brittle language in the Commons sometimes came from the supporters of a second referendum. Donald Tusk only last week pronounced their dream dead. Sabine Weyand, Olly Robbins’ counterpart in the EU’s Brexit team, said pretty much the same at the Munich Security Conference yesterday. Are they really on the cusp of seizing destiny?

The Prime Minister in the Commons was doggedly pursuing MPs who might back her deal.

One DUP MP said watching Theresa May in the. Commons today was like watching someone dole out sweeties from a giant paper bag. Here’s some “I hate the Customs Union” fruit pastilles for the ERG. Here are some “trade union rights” Polos for Labour backbenchers. Justine Greening disobligingly got up and said just that. The PM, she said, was trying to cobble together any old coalition with grubby backroom deals. The Prime Minister delved into a special reserve of language in response: she was getting used to remarks “of that ilk” from her former Cabinet colleague, she said

The Theresa May sweeties handed out were very much for others though and did some of the work they were meant to achieve. One Labour MP inclined to back Theresa May’s deal said after the PM’s statement: “I give her three, three and a half our of five.” Theresa May offered worker protections that keep up with and leapfrog the EU laws. It was in line with what she was asked to say by a group of Labour MPs who met her in her Commons office yesterday.

But Gareth Snell, one of the Labour MPs who was at that meeting, said it would help Labour MPs back her if she toned down the brittleness of her attacks on Labour generally and the Labour leader’s approach to Brexit more specifically.

The other target of the sweetie-throwing charm offensive was the ERG and they pronounced themselves pleased to hear the Prime Minister foreswearing anything that goes by the name of “Customs Union.” Mark Francois admitted the group was policing Theresa May’s language carefully having seen her engaging with Jeremy Corbyn for whom it is a Brexit non-negotiable.

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