It may now not be possible for the Government to postpone Tuesday’s evening’s coming vote on Theresa May’s Brexit deal. Or the Speaker – that friend of Labour and enemy of Brexit – may somehow block any such move. Or Downing Street may find some face-saving amendment that minimises the scale of defeat.
But whatever happens, the Prime Minister has a last chance this week to amend the element of the deal that makes it unacceptable: the backstop. So whether or not the vote takes place, she must push the EU in Brussels on Thursday for a unilateral right of exit or a time limit.
We have no confidence that such a manoeuvre will succeed if executed by her at this stage. It could just be that, confronted by the prospect of a disorderly Brexit on its north-west frontier, the EU gives way. But it is far more likely to stand firm, hoping – with reason – that May will then lose control of the Commons altogether, which will then push for the postponement of Article 50 and a second referendum, to which pressure she will yield. The European Court is primed to pave the way for this development on Monday. Furthermore, backing down on the backstop would mean the EU27 deserting one of its own, the country which has been the biggest winner in the negotiation to date: Ireland.
The Prime Minister would then have three policy options: that second referendum, Norway-plus-the-backstop and no deal. Since she opposes all of them, the logic of the impasse would point to resignation. But we read May as believing that it would be her duty as a public servant to carry on. And what seems to animate her most is a fear of no deal – an outcome which the Government has had a duty to prepare for, which it has failed properly to do.
She would therefore bend either to cross-party pressure for the Norway scheme, or for that second referendum – thereby spitting in the face of the biggest-ever vote in British electoral history, breaking her own manifesto commitments, and crafting a narrative of betrayal that threatens frightening consequences for the country. Even if she doesn’t do all this, however, the point at which she provided effective leadership and credible negotiating is past, if the backstop can’t be altered this week.
Conservative MPs will therefore have no alternative, if she can’t extract that last-minute change, but to write to Graham Brady seeking a vote of confidence in May’s leadership. Cabinet members are preparing for this development already: today’s papers are packed with details of fledgling leadership campaigns, and Amber Rudd has already broken with Downing Street by supporting a Plan B (Norway-plus-the-backstop) if Plan A fails.
The way would thus be open for candidates supporting a second referendum, the Norway scheme or no deal to MPs and Party members. We suspect that the eventual outcome would favour that last option. The new Prime Minister would then face a titanic struggle between the Conservative manifesto position, reinforced by Party members, and those MPs determined to flout the referendum mandate. His or her message to Commons and the country would be: the government I lead will deliver the referendum result. If you want to thwart me, the only means available to you will be a vote of no confidence.
Ultimately, the argument for this course is that the alternative is even worse. May’s threat of a Corbyn Government before Christmas is evidence of her desperation and – unless the EU somehow saves her – ruin. For the DUP has made it clear that it will only abandon the Conservatives if her deal passes the Commons, not if it fails.