Prime minister Theresa May has invited her mutinous MPs to Downing Street for drinks next week as she tries to save her Brexit deal, but it is a sign of unwavering hostility among Eurosceptic Tories that even her Chardonnay offensive has backfired.
“I’ve thrown my invite in the bin,” said one Eurosceptic Conservative MP, fulminating that Mrs May’s aides had not even bothered to find out the name of his wife.
The invitation to one of two Downing Street receptions was addressed to individual MPs “plus partner”, and another disgruntled Tory said he would not be attending. “The fact they can’t even be bothered to find out the name of my other half shows how utterly incompetent they are,” he added.
Some Downing Street aides had hoped the Christmas break would see Eurosceptic Conservatives’ fervent opposition to Mrs May’s compromise Brexit deal start to crumble, on the basis it would allow for a period of calm reflection.
But Tory Brexiters’ determination to reject her withdrawal agreement in a crunch Commons vote scheduled for mid-January seems as strong as ever.
“If anything my mood has hardened over Christmas,” said one Conservative Brexiter. “Not being in the [Westminster] bubble focused my mind. We have to stop this stupidity. I will happily vote this deal down a thousand times.”
On Friday Mrs May spoke to Jean-Claude Juncker, European Commission president, to plead for his help to avert defeat in the vote, but so far there is no indication of a breakthrough with Brussels.
“I don’t think the vote will go through,” said one cabinet minister, echoing an air of pessimism at the top of government.
The prime minister’s allies insist they can win eventually — it may take two Commons votes — but this will not be pretty. “It’s called winning ugly,” said one.
The stage is therefore set for an attritional battle, as Mrs May attempts to wear down opposition to her deal by highlighting the dangers posed by the main alternatives: a no-deal Brexit, a second referendum or a general election.
It will take place against a febrile backdrop, with ministers including home secretary Sajid Javid and foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt running barely disguised Tory leadership campaigns after Mrs May said last month she would step down before the next election.
Given the scale of Mrs May’s problems, there is widespread bafflement that the prime minister’s team — notably the Tory whips — seem to have taken the festive period off, rather than lobbying MPs to fall into line.
“I’ve had absolutely no one contact me at all over the past fortnight,” said one moderate Eurosceptic Conservative MP who is open to persuasion on Mrs May’s deal. “I would have expected some effort to have been made.”
For now Mrs May seems to be devoting her efforts to persuading the Democratic Unionist party, which is meant to prop up her minority government, to support the Brexit deal — in the hope that Eurosceptic Tories will then follow suit.
But Sammy Wilson, the DUP’s Brexit spokesman, said on Friday there was no way the party could support a deal which would create new regulatory barriers to trade between Northern Ireland and the British mainland.
Mrs May, who had a working lunch this week with DUP deputy leader Nigel Dodds, aims to persuade the party that a controversial backstop plan to prevent a hard Irish border — based on a “temporary” EU-UK customs union — cannot be permanent.
But the DUP is insisting on a legal guarantee that the backstop will be temporary, which Brussels has so far refused to grant on the grounds that it would undermine the principle of an “all weather” guarantee against a hard Irish border.
Instead officials working for Mrs May and Mr Juncker are exploring whether a declaration — offering EU assurances about the temporary nature of the backstop — could do the trick.
Downing Street admits that Mrs May is only seeking “reassurances” rather than a rewrite of the 585-page withdrawal treaty, with some officials saying a “joint interpretative instrument” could define the meaning of the word “temporary”.
Such arcane legal manoeuvres may not be enough for the DUP or Eurosceptic Tories. Daniel Kawczynski, a pro-Brexit Conservative MP, said: “A warm glass of Chardonnay isn’t going to change my mind [on the Brexit deal]. We need a legal guarantee on the backstop.”
On the EU side, there is a wariness over offering Mrs May concessions now, not least because there is confusion about what exactly the prime minister needs to secure victory in the Commons vote. “We’re waiting for precision on what the UK ‘ask’ is,” said one EU diplomat.
Mujtaba Rahman, a managing director at Eurasia, the consultancy, said the deadlock between the UK and the EU could last a while longer. “There is a desire in Brussels to leave the final concessions until the very last minute so it is too late for the Eurosceptics to demand more,” he added.
There is a growing view in Brussels that the real political action may come when — not if — Mrs May suffers an initial parliamentary defeat on her Brexit deal and then tries to find a way of salvaging the situation in a second Commons vote, possibly in early February.
“People are pricing in the fact that the vote will take place, the vote will be lost, and then perhaps there will be a rendezvous with reality,” said another EU diplomat.