Theresa May’s promise of a “new and improved” and “bold” Brexit deal sounded more like an advertisement for a washing detergent than a convincing plan to end months of deadlock at Westminster; even some senior Tories were not buying it.
“There’s nothing new in it, it’s all the stuff we know about already,” said one Conservative official briefed on the UK prime minister’s fourth attempt to win House of Commons backing for a Brexit deal. A vote on the legislation implementing her withdrawal agreement is scheduled for the week starting June 3.
A sense of doom has settled on the party as it braces itself for an encounter with the voters in Thursday’s European Parliament elections, with Mrs May still unable to convincingly map out a route out of her Brexit trap.
Daniel Hannan, a Tory MEP, wrote in the Sunday Telegraph that the Conservatives were heading for their worst ever national result, far worse than the 25 per cent vote share recorded in the 1995 local elections, when John Major was at his nadir.
Citing a YouGov poll showing Tory support in the Euro-elections falling to 9 per cent, Mr Hannan added: “The idea that a party can pick itself up after a result like that and win a general election is for the birds.”
Mrs May’s latest plan is to rebrand her deal — already rejected three times by MPs — and hope that a backlash from angry pro-Brexit voters on Thursday will scare Tory, Labour and other MPs into backing it.
“I will not be simply asking MPs to think again,” she wrote in the Sunday Times. “Instead I will ask them to look at a new and improved deal with a fresh pair of eyes — and to give it their support.”
The prime minister is expected to incorporate into the legislation aspects of the now-collapsed cross-party talks with Labour on which there was some agreement.
Greg Clark, business secretary, has written to ministerial colleagues suggesting the government agree to adopt new EU rules on workers’ rights that might be agreed in the future. An undertaking to match EU standards on the environment is also expected.
The Withdrawal Agreement Bill will include another concession to Labour MPs, with Mrs May promising that parliament would have a vote on Britain’s negotiating position for the second round of Brexit talks on a future UK/EU relationship.
The Democratic Unionist party will be wooed with language about “maintaining the integrity of the UK” but government advisers are sceptical that this will alter the Northern Ireland party’s fierce opposition to the backstop to prevent a hard border on the island of Ireland.
Crucially there will no promise of a second referendum on a final deal, demanded by scores of Labour MPs. Mrs May’s cabinet will discuss on Tuesday how far it is willing to go in meeting Labour’s demands for a close customs deal with the EU.
The prime minister had toyed with the idea of holding a series of Commons votes to test support for different customs options, but Tory officials say she is “going cold” on the idea, not least because Labour has not signed up to the process.
“We could end up with the worst of all worlds,” said one official. “What would happen if Labour simply failed to turn up for the votes? It wouldn’t solve anything, but you’d have the governing party tearing itself to shreds in public.”
To add to the disarray, Tory MP Conor Burns demanded that the party whip be stripped from Michael Heseltine, the Tory peer and former deputy prime minister who has indicated he will vote for the Liberal Democrats in this week’s elections.
Labour is also increasingly anxious that it is losing support to the anti-Brexit Liberal Democrats, prompting Jeremy Corbyn to adopt his warmest language yet towards the idea of a second EU referendum.
He told the BBC’s Andrew Marr that if Labour succeeded in securing its own version of Brexit in the Commons “I think it would be reasonable to have a public vote to decide on that in the future”.
Labour denied there had been a shift in policy, with people close to the party saying that Mr Corbyn’s priority was to have a general election, but that Labour could back a second vote to “prevent a bad Tory deal or no deal”.