Political history is full of surprises and we may be on the brink of another. It may be that all the effort required to understand Labour’s stance on a second referendum, the blizzard of parliamentary amendments and the varied proposals for Brexit delay are all beside the point. The point is now on the horizon and, if you squint a little, you can glimpse the distant sign of a deal passing. Not many in the political class are ready for the surprise that may be with them before long.
Brexit is the subject that it is impossible to keep in proportion. David Cameron exaggerated the threat from Ukip and so conceded an unnecessary referendum. The Leave campaign conjured up a phantom of federalism and imaginary immigrants to scare us all sceptical. The Remain campaign placed economic fortunes on a precipice and waited in vain for them to fall fast enough. With time now short there is a feverish conversation about the prospect of leaving without a deal, the mechanics of extending the Article 50 process and the Labour Party’s almost-adoption of a sort-of referendum (one day over the rainbow). And every word of it may just be not worth saying.
If Geoffrey Cox, the attorney-general, can squeeze a concession out of Brussels and call it a codicil, then the deal is done. Jacob Rees-Mogg called for a ladder to climb down in yesterday’s Daily Mail. Steve Baker has done TV interviews in which he raised, for the first time, the possibility that he might vote for the withdrawal agreement. The European Research Group will fold, the Democratic Unionist Party will claim victory and, with a few Labour MPs joining in, Mrs May will win an inglorious victory.
It is no surprise, of course, that change is happening tight against the wire. It is in the nature of negotiations that they crystallise late. Until this week all options were available and nobody profited from shifting. This week no-deal was, in effect, disqualified and an extension to the process loomed, on the face of it, larger. Something finally happened and all of it points towards the deal.
There are three converging reasons to think that success on March 12 (or even before) is the most likely of all the unlikely outcomes: the collapse of Labour, the tribalism of the Tories and the late arrival of naked fear into the Brexit project.
The defection of eight MPs has changed the power dynamics in the Labour Party. Jeremy Corbyn, in his usual murky fashion, had to grant his backbenchers their desired second referendum. This was greeted as a big moment, which it was, but not for the reason stated nor with the effect intended. When Tory Brexiteers note that a second referendum could now be more likely, it helps to discipline them in favour of the deal. The more likely a referendum seems, the less likely it becomes. This is a second order effect that is probably greatly to Mr Corbyn’s liking.
For the Tories this has helped to stir the political blood. Tribalism is kicking in. They know that failure to take Britain out of the EU poses an existential threat to the Tory party. The Conservative vote is such a Leave vote that a failure to complete the mission would be an abject political disaster. Anyone who cares about the political fortunes of the Tory party (and we can hardly expect Tory MPs not to) realises that they absolutely have to do this.
And if they achieve that much they can see a prize on offer. Not only Brexit itself but electoral victory. The Labour Party, with a century’s heritage, is now polling 23 per cent. The Independent Group, whose only (excellent) policy is that it is not even a party, is already on 18 per cent. The Tories have a lead in double digits and they may not all be disposed to throw it away in a fit of ideological purity on a border dispute. Don’t be surprised if their principled opposition turns out to be friable now they scent victory.
It is not just hope that is moving them. Fear has also entered the soul of the prophets of Brexit. The threatened resignations of Amber Rudd, David Gauke and Greg Clark taught them what everyone else knew already, which is that the numbers do not exist in the House of Commons for a departure without a deal. It remains true that this is the legal default but most of the Brexit gang now know this is not politically realistic. A long extension, they think, means they risk their prize. It means Britain could be trapped in the EU for a long time, even beyond the date of the next election. The parliamentary schedule contains, on March 14, the mind-focusing prospect of a vote extending the Article 50 process. It scares them and the only way to lock down Brexit is to vote for the bloody thing. Which they just might.
The logic of this sorry saga has always been the same. It has just taken some people longer to work it out than others and not everyone has got there yet. Since the Brady amendment calling for the Irish backstop to be replaced, however, the Tory party has been sending out a signal to the world that it wanted to come together. It is going to make a drastic change to the politics of the day if it does. It is true, of course, that a withdrawal agreement is barely the end of the beginning of Brexit. The disputes over the future relationship will rumble on for years, but they will only occasionally spark into life and into public view. Brexit will retreat as a political issue, leaving behind what has always been there.
For the Conservatives that will mean, after a quick lap of honour that takes in the local elections, responsibility for domestic policy that has been neglected in the glare of Brexit. For Labour, and more precisely for those MPs for whom fighting Brexit has been a diversion from the truth about their party, there will be a moment of reckoning. They will have to make a calculation about whether they can rescue their party or not. They are loyal to it and it is reasonable for them to hope that they can. Yet the question will be posed. If the deal goes through there is no longer anything bigger to think about.
Success for Mrs May is by no means guaranteed; plenty could yet go awry. Victory could require a brief extension to the Article 50 process in any case so that the legal work of Brexit can be completed. Yet a decent outside bet, given the length of the odds, is that Britain does indeed leave the EU on March 29, as scheduled. Cue the Tory party political broadcast featuring the more than 80 occasions on which Mrs May has said this in the House of Commons. I am not saying that it will definitely happen; I just won’t be surprised if it does.