There have been so many “make or break” moments in the last two years, it’s easy to dismiss the agreement on a draft Brexit deal as just another meaningless milestone. But it really isn’t.
It could be the breaking point for many — inside and outside the Cabinet — who have serious doubts about Theresa May’s strategy.
It could force her from office, trigger a General Election, or even a second referendum. Or, it could limp through Parliament, leaving long-lasting enmity in its wake.
Northern Ireland remains the biggest stumbling block. The EU has long insisted the only way to avoid a hard border with the Irish Republic is for Northern Ireland (alone) to follow EU rules, something the Prime Minister has repeatedly ruled out.
Her solution is for the whole of the UK to agree to effectively stay in the customs union once the transition period ends. But study the small print, and it may start to look like Northern Ireland’s subjugation to EU rules will be greater than the rest of the UK.
This doesn’t matter, says Theresa May, because it’s only a last resort — we won’t need the backstop, because we’ll agree a wider deal before it’s due to come into force in 2021.
She appears, however, to be the only person who thinks that’s possible.
So, in fact, she may be signing the UK up to following EU rules, over which the UK will have absolutely no say, for an undefined period.
An “independent element” in a new committee would decide if the UK could stop following those rules - and even then without another solution, Northern Ireland could be left behind.
This is the “vassal state” that angers so many Brexiteers.
You can’t keep an undeliverable promise
The likes of Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg are outraged by the anti-democratic nature of an outside institution (the EU) imposing rules on a sovereign state (Britain) over which that state has no control.
Go back to the first half of 2016, and they would have dismissed such concerns as “Project Fear.” It turns out there was much to fear.
Theresa May is clearly a weak leader, and a poor prime minister. But who else could have delivered a better outcome? The referendum was won on a series of undeliverable, some would say false, promises.
Voters were told they could leave behind all the things they didn’t like about the EU (free movement, Brussels diktat), and keep all the things they did like (free trade, cheap phone calls on holiday).
This was never true. The EU was never going to allow a member state to leave, and enjoy all the benefits of membership. It would have to demonstrate the price of leaving, the economic and social consequences, to prevent a stampede for the exit.
Theresa May has spent the last two years trying to deliver on a series of undeliverable promises. She’s failed, as anyone else would.
It’s all academic really
For all the arguments about backstops and customs arrangements, the reality is that — right now — there’s almost no chance this Brexit deal will be approved by Parliament.
Brexiteer Tories won’t support it because it hands too much power to the EU, Remainer Tories won’t back it because they think it will harm the economy. The DUP won’t back it because they’re convinced they’re being sacrificed for the rest of the UK. Labour will oppose it to try to trigger an election.
Assuming the Prime Minister gets through her Cabinet meeting with enough ministers left to govern, she then has to persuade the remaining 27 EU member states to back the deal as well. And then she has to go to Parliament, where she will probably lose the “meaningful vote” we’ve heard so much about.
And then? No-one knows. But with some in Westminster predicting that vote could be as late as December 21st, it could be a Blue Christmas for Theresa May...