In an extraordinary time for Britain, Prime Minister Theresa May generated the first surprise of her campaign to rally the public behind her Brexit deal with the European Union: by suggesting a televised debate.
Such debates are normally held during the run-up to general elections. There was also one before the Brexit referendum in 2016, when a majority of 52 per cent voted to leave the EU, setting Britain down a path that no member state had gone before.
May even refused to join a live debate before a disastrous snap election in June 2017, which she had called to ask voters to back her leadership and plans for Britain to leave the European Union.
This time no public vote is planned to follow May’s expected debate with opposition Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn.
“She’s trying to create a public opinion that is favourable to the deal, probably particularly amongst Leave voters,” said John Curtice, a political scientist at the University of Strathclyde.
Curtice told dpa that May wants to be able to sell her deal to lawmakers by saying: “I have the mandate that people gave us … so you should be supporting it.”
The 650 members of parliament’s main elected house, the Commons, will get a “meaningful vote” on the deal on December 11, after five days of debate.
Many pro-EU and pro-Brexit lawmakers among the 315 Conservatives in parliament have vowed to vote against the deal.
Corbyn says Labour, which has 257 members of parliament, will also oppose it.
Despite the odds against her, May appears to be banking on the public pressure on both Conservative and Labour lawmakers, and their fear of a damaging no-deal Brexit, tipping the balance in her favour.
That’s debatable, however. Simon Usherwood, a Brexit-focussed political analyst at the University of Surrey, said he expects the impact of the public campaign to be “fairly marginal” in influencing lawmakers.
“The bulk of the work does remain in parliament,” Usherwood said. “But I think public opinion is going to remain divided as long as parliament looks divided.”
Broadly backed by EU officials, May claims Britain faces a choice between her deal and leaving the EU without a withdrawal agreement, but many disagree.
Pro-EU lawmakers say that is a “false dichotomy,” arguing that other options shoud be considered and that a new referendum should be held on the deal.
A growing number of people are backing the People’s Vote campaign for a second referendum, but May has ruled out this option.
Corbyn has suggested it would only be a last resort for Labour, which hopes to force an election instead, which could throw Brexit into even more uncertainty.
Most opposition lawmakers have dismissed May’s public campaign, while Conservative eurosceptics accuse her of running a “project fear” through a series of government reports warning of dire economic and other consequences if Britain leaves without a deal.
Even Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party, whose 10 lawmakers prop up May’s minority government, has called May’s travels a “propaganda” tour.
The DUP has suggested it will vote against the deal. It is angered because a temporary “backstop” to guarantee an open Irish border after Brexit could place Northern Ireland under slightly different trading arrangements from the rest of the United Kingdom.
Despite picking up some business and political support in recent days, few people expect May to win the vote, at least not the first time, and few claim to know what could happen if she is defeated.
What happens next could depend upon “how badly, and in what way, she loses,” Curtice said.
A narrow defeat, by 20 votes or less, “would almost be a moral victory” that could allow her to tweak the deal before going back to parliament, he said.
May could try to persuade the EU to make minor concessions on the key issue of the backstop, Curtice added.
“Now whether the EU will feel inclined to help her out, who knows?” he said.
Usherwood said the EU was generally unwilling to renegotiate the Brexit deal but could perhaps agree to alter “some symbolic things” in the non-binding political declaration that accompanies the withdrawal agreement.
None of the alternatives to approving, or perhaps improving, May’s deal could command a majority in parliament, he added.
“I really don’t know [what will happen next], and I haven’t met anyone who does feel confident about knowing,” Usherwood said.