Richard North, 04/01/2019  

It took us very little time after the publication of the draft withdrawal agreement to decide that it was a very poor result and not one we would like to have seen adopted. It was almost so bad that even a no-deal Brexit looked preferable.

But, despite some prevarication, the key word was almost. What is being styled as Mrs May's deal has many undesirable features, but the potential consequences of leaving the EU without an agreement are not those that any sensible person would willingly entertain. Reluctantly, we conclude that, if presented with a choice between Mrs May's deal and a no-deal, we have to go with Mrs May.

That selection would stand in the event that the choice was made as between Mrs May's deal and revoking Article 50, and there is not really a valid comparison between accepting Mrs May's deal and opting for another referendum.

However, if we were to be given the choice of either an Article 50 revocation or a no-deal, that is probably the one situation where I would feel compelled to opt for a no-deal. That would be my personal choice, on the basis that rejoining is simply not an option. The schism with the EU is already permanent – I can't see the UK ever again being a functional member of the Union.

However, if the ESRC-funded party members project is to be believed, I am at odds with the majority of the Tory rank and file.

The study, run from Queen Mary University of London and Sussex University, gives some support to my antipathy towards remaining in the EU, with only 15 percent of the membership wanting to stay in, but when it comes to Mrs May's deal, just 23 percent are prepared to back it. This compares with a massive 57 percent who would choose to leave the EU without a deal.

How valid these findings are is difficult to tell and the survey posits a three-way referendum giving the choice between the two options. However, I recall a You Gov poll back in mid-November where 28 percent of Conservative voters supported Mrs May's deal, with 41 percent opposing it.

Although the structure of this ESRC study is different, it might suggest that opinion against the deal has actually hardened, and more Tory voters are prepared to break ranks with the prime minister than before, even with the confounding option of leaving the EU.

But this rather contradicts my assertion made just before Christmas, that there was far more support for Mrs May and her deal in the country at large than there was in the frenzied hothouse of Westminster. This, I then hazarded, would have a number of Tory MPs returning to London after the break, with the words of angry constituents ringing in their ears – enough to change their views on how to vote.

If, however, MPs have been getting a message which supports opposition to the deal, then we may see the opposite effect, with many more resolved to vote against it on 15 January. Mrs May will then be hard put to make up the numbers from the ranks of the opposition parties.

Beyond what will undoubtedly be the first of several votes, I don't think anyone sensible is prepared to predict what might happen. What might be called received wisdom allows for the possibility that there might be a vote of confidence that Mrs May might win.

With the prime minister proving to be a master of political stratagems, having outflanked the ERG in the leadership stakes, she may well have several other rabbits which she is preparing to pull out of the hat. But there can be no dispute that every time we see sentiment firming up against the deal, it brings us that bit closer to a no-deal scenario, whence we crash out of the EU.

At the time I was writing in the pre-Christmas period, we were seeing in the The Sunday Times a report of speculation "swirling" about a possible move by the EU, with the belief that we would see the Commission coming up with a form of words that made it look as if concessions had been given on the Irish backstop.

For all that, we get news from that other impeccable political source, The Sun, which tells us that EU leaders "insist" that Brexit negotiations are over, "despite Theresa May pleading for more concessions".

Mrs May is understood to have spoken to German Chancellor Angela Merkel since Christmas, and "is also said to have reached out to other leaders including Spanish PM Pedro Sanchez and Dutch Premier Mark Rutte". Yet she has come away empty-handed, with not even a face-saver to put to her electorate.

To make matters worse, Irish prime minister Leo Varadkar and Angela Merkel have got together to pledge to "stand by" the Withdrawal Agreement.

Separately, Varadkar had declared that Ireland will not accept any change to the deal that renders the backstop inoperable. The threat of a no-deal scenario, he adds, was not of Ireland or the EU's making, and that he was looking to the UK to propose a viable solution that we (the Irish) can accept.

Perhaps anticipating a hardening of sentiment against the deal, the government is to launch a publicity blitz on the dangers of a no-deal, with adverts set to warn of "disruption" to travel and the supply of medicines, as Defra Secretary Gove warns of "grim" consequences for farming.

Gove's intervention has brought Owen Paterson into play, with paean of praise for the genetically modified foods that we can spread throughout the land in the deregulated, post-Brexit UK – as long as we have the sense to ditch the Withdrawal Agreement.

Mr Paterson's enthusiasm for GMOs is well known, but I sense that this is not exactly the issue that is going to turn the hearts and minds of the UK population against the "rule of Brussels" – given that the job hasn't already been done. But, nonetheless, Paterson stands by his view that the Withdrawal Agreement "would leave UK farming in a potentially dire situation, remaining bound to the EU".

Despite that, what happens to our food exports to EU Member States, Paterson doesn't say. But it is a fairly good bet that, if we adopt the sort of deregulated nirvana that he so desires, our growers and farmers will have considerable difficulty selling their wares to our continental neighbours.

Paterson, though, is not on his own in "dissing" the Withdrawal Agreement. Predictably, the Telegraph throws its weight into the fray, with an article and a cartoon lampooning the "scaredy-cats" and their "exaggerated fear of no deal".

The egregious Steve Baker chips in to tell us that: "There will be legitimate reasons for the Government to run a public information campaign in the event of no deal. But any campaign must be exquisitely calibrated to ensure it is legitimate public information and not an attempt to scare the public to lobby their MPs to vote for [Mrs May's] unacceptable deal".

The odd thing about this, though, is that with the government preparing to talk up the threat of a no-deal, Transport Secretary Chris is playing it down, with his reassurances about the post-Brexit performance of the ports.

But even now, he's very far from out of the woods with Seaborne Freight. News is reaching the media of the "chequered business past" of Seaborne Freight's chief executive, Ben Sharp, raising further questions "about the government’s vetting of the company, which has no ferries at present".

Mr Sharp, The Times tells us, was managing director of Mercator, a chartering company, that was forced into liquidation by HM Revenue & Customs in 2014 over a significant tax bill. He is now managing director of Albany Shipping, which is technically insolvent and does not appear to be operating. Mercator International’s accounts for 2013 show that it owed all of its creditors a total £1.78 million.

If one was to be logical about this, then the accumulation of criticism over "ferrygate" should raise concerns about the capability of the government to manage a no-deal scenario, nudging people into Mrs May's camp. But politics doesn't work that way, and there are too many variables for any sound predictions to be made.

This could be a question of head over heart, and if people are reacting emotionally, then they seem more inclined to accept a no-deal scenario. To borrow a phrase though, if they are now ringing the bell over the advent of a no-deal, soon they will be wringing their hands.

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