This year's party conference season ended today with a good speech from Theresa May that covered more than Brexit. But in Birmingham this week I saw a Conservative party conference that was dominated by Brexit. What I saw and heard gives some clear pointers to what may happen over the coming months. My worrying conclusion is that a No Deal Brexit is increasingly looking like the only way out of the Brexit political stalemate in Parliament.
1. The Conservative Party is deeply divided over Brexit. In the main conference hall, Ministers gave speeches designed to circle the wagons around the Prime Minister and the 'Chequers' proposals for Brexit and at the same time warned that government was preparing for No Deal.
In the fringe events, we saw open, angry and vociferous attacks on 'Chequers': there were huge queues for any 'chuck chequers' event. Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees Mogg drew the biggest crowds. There was even an alternative Brexit festival outside the secure conference area, with a raucous programme of speakers attacking the Prime Minister and her approach to Brexit. These speakers called for a Canada style trade agreement instead of chequers. They also all signalled that a No Deal Brexit would be OK as a fallback. There may be as many as 80 Conservative MPs who share these views. Unless there is a leadership challenge in the next week they are not intent on toppling Theresa May; they are intent on pushing her away from a softer Brexit.
Finally, there is a smaller group of Conservative MPs who called for a soft Brexit this week - advocating a second referendum and backing a Norway style deal. They may be small in numbers and have much less support amongst party members, but with a hung Parliament they could be very influential in a Parliamentary vote, as they showed in July.
2. Brexit will come down to Parliamentary arithmetic. There is possibly no majority in Parliament for any future relationship with the EU: there may be 80-100 MPs who would support a Canada style trade agreement. Another 200 or so (including a small number of Labour MPs) may back a Chequers approach. And around 300 or so (mainly Labour and smaller parties plus a small number of Conservatives) would back a softer Brexit. This may justify Nicky Morgan MP's assertion that there is a majority in favour of a Norway style deal - but she may not have the numbers and Conservative MPs may not want to vote with the Labour leader.
3. If agreement can be reached on the Northern Ireland border, the question of Chequers versus Norway versus Canada could be fudged until after we leave the EU. That will require the EU to agree that customs checks between Northern Ireland and Ireland can be done without physical borders and for the UK to agree that there could still be some regulatory checks on products (especially health and hygiene checks on food and livestock) carried out at the UK-Northern Ireland border. The Democratic Unionist Party reminded the UK government this week that they would be unlikely to agree to the latter - which would mean the government has no majority in Parliament. A compromise proposal on the Northern Ireland border is expected to be tabled in the coming weeks; reactions to this will be critical to what happens next. If the Northern Ireland border issues can be agreed then we are nearly home and dry with a legally binding Withdrawal Agreement and the question of future UK-EU relationship (Canada, Norway or Chequers) can be fudged in a non binding political statement between the EU and UK - and kicked down the road for further negotiations after Brexit day in March 2019.
4. We are facing political stalemate. This still looks most likely when you assess the parliamentary arithmetic. There are three solutions to political deadlock: an election; a 2nd referendum; or No Deal. Labour want an election; Conservative MPs would have to vote for one and are unlikely to do so (though there are scenarios where this might happen). Labour has come out in favour of a 2nd referendum (as an alternative to an election) and might gain some support from the soft Brexit Conservatives. All but a handful of Conservative MPs oppose a second referendum and there is unlikely to be time even if government proposed and passed legislation for a second referendum
5. No Deal increasingly offers a way out of this deadlock for all politicians. As noted above, both hard Brexiteers and the government see No Deal as the fallback position. It offers common ground between the biggest division in the Conservative party. It doesn't necessarily need a parliamentary majority as it could happen by default.
Since August I have been receiving multiple inquiries every day from organisations who want to develop their Brexit contingency plansand in particular plan for No Deal.
I have been encouraging business to plan for No Deal as it is generally the most disruptive scenario, the one that could happen most suddenly, and it provides the basis for assessing Brexit risks under other less disruptive scenarios. After the party conference season, it may now be the most likely scenario - the easiest way of escaping political deadlock.
In her speech there was no mention of "Chequers" specifically - with Mrs May describing her plan as a "free trade deal that provides for frictionless trade in goods". Defending it, she warned delegates that pursuing "our own visions of the perfect Brexit" could lead to "no Brexit at all".