Don’t fall for PM’s project fear

by Hugo Dixon | 19.11.2018

Theresa May is talking out of both sides of her mouth in her desperation to ram her miserable Brexit deal through Parliament. She is telling Brexiters that voting down her deal could mean we don’t leave the EU at all – and at the same time telling pro-Europeans and business that it would mean crashing out with no deal.

It can’t mean both. Much the most likely outcome will be a People’s Vote, handing the public the final say.

One half of the prime minister’s push-me-pull-you approach will be on display today at the CBI. The business lobby’s president is expected to say that while the deal is “not perfect”, crashing out would be a “wrecking ball”. While John Allan is right that “no deal” would be extremely damaging, he is wrong to imply that voting down the deal is likely to lead to that outcome.

Other business leaders, including over 100 who support Business for a People’s Vote, don’t buy the line that the alternative to the deal is no deal. They are persuaded by the other half of the prime minister’s push-me-pull-you – namely that it means we are likely to end up with a new public vote with no Brexit as an option. 57% of business leaders back a People’s Vote, according to YouGov.

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John Neill, chairman and chief executive of Unipart, one of the UK’s largest companies, said: “Why would any rational country choose to leave the world’s biggest, richest, closest, free trade market where our brands are well known, our distribution channels established with skilled people to service our high value added products?”

It is hard to find anybody who actually thinks the deal is any good. The latest group of MPs to voice concern are the Scottish Conservatives. Ross Thomson said he could “never accept” trade barriers between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, David Duguid said proposals which could hang fishermen out to dry were “unacceptable”, John Lamont said he had a “number of concerns” and Paul Masterton said he was “not in a position” to back the deal.

The Scottish rebellion is on top of the revolt by pro-European Conservatives and the DUP.

It is also on top of an attempt by hardline Brexiters to force a vote of no-confidence in the prime minister. Although Jacob Rees-Mogg has yet to get the support of the 48 MPs needed to trigger a contest, rival leadership candidates are preparing their battle plans.

The prime minister did, though, say one correct thing yesterday: getting rid of her would not change the “parliamentary arithmetic”. Whoever replaced her would face the same problem that Parliament doesn’t want her deal.

With Keir Starmer making clear at the weekend that Labour will assemble a majority of MPs to push through amendments that stop “no deal”, parliamentarians of all stripes are increasingly realising that a People’s Vote will be the logical solution.

As Alistair Burt, the foreign office minister, tweeted on Saturday: “If an agreed deal on leaving between the Govt and the EU is voted down by purist Brexiteers, do not be surprised if consensus on accepting the result of the Referendum by Remain voting MPs breaks down. Parliament will not support no deal.” Nicky Morgan, Tory chair of the Commons Treasury Committee, echoed the point in a column this morning, entitled: “If arch-Brexiteers sink this agreement, they will drive many Conservative MPs to back a second referendum”

In other words, don’t believe the prime minister’s project fear.

The passage about Nicky Morgan was added soon after publication

Edited by Luke Lythgoe