Theresa May succeeded yesterday in achieving her aim. Of the three Brexit outcomes that could have emerged from the EU summit, she has gained the one most likely to meet her core objective – survival as Prime Minister, at least for the moment. There is not enough time to hold a leadership election before April 12, the deadline now agreed if her deal hasn’t passed the Commons by then. And there is no sure alternative means of finding a replacement. A short extension best suits her abiding preoccupation: to hang on.
Of the other two possible outcomes, a long extension would have opened up the time and space for a leadership challenge. No Deal might have kept her in office for the time being, since the response from her Ministers and Conservative could have been: all hands to the pumps. But it might not have done – since it would also have created that space and time. Furthermore, it could have sparked Ministerial resignations, defections to the Independent Group, and a perilous confidence vote.
In a strange kind of way, one can’t help admiring May’s ducking and diving, her evasions, her twists and turns, her deflections, her gnomic silences – the sheer inventiveness and tenacity with which she hangs on. Sometimes, she has threatened no Brexit. At other times, such as earlier this week, she has threatened No Deal. On Wednesday, she hurled a bucketful of verbal paraffin over just about every other MP in the House – including her own Parliamentary Party. Late yesterday, she sought to sponge the oil from their hair and enraged faces, offering words as close to an apology as she is probably capable of speaking.
She has promised that Britain would leave the EU on March 29 over a hundred times. She has led Tory MPs into the lobbies to vote in principle not to do so. She has U-turned on a general election in 2017, transition migration, transition extension, putting her deal to the Commons in December, a regulatory border in the Irish Sea: we cannot bear to replicate the list in full. Her latest about-turn, characteristically implied rather than asserted, is that we may now participate in this spring’s European elections, after all.
So evasive have been her dealings, so profuse her positions, that she was bound sooner or later to stumble across one that would work. So it proved yesterday. Like the majority of Conservative MPs, like the National Convention, and like the local Associations which have lined up behind the last, we have always argued that one has to be prepared to walk away from a negotiation to get a result. The threat of No Deal should always remain on the table.
We believe that May was bluffing when she hinted earlier this week that she was prepared to countenance Britain leaving the EU with No Deal on the date still written into law. In her elliptical way, she has pushed the idea at pro-Brexit Ministers. She did the same to EU27 leaders yesterday. Some of them may not have believed her. But she seems to have sowed enough doubt to get them collectively to back off. Emmanuel Macron didn’t veto extension. (Neither, please note, did Viktor Orban or Matteo Salvini.)
How much more would have been achieved had she played that card at the right time and place – in other words, right at the start of the negotiation! If Philip Hammond had been moved in the botched 2018 shuffle, as we urged just before it took place. If a Minister for No Deal had been appointed then (ditto). If preparations had been ramped up. That lost chance is a tragedy with a double edge. For May has not only threatened No Deal late in the day, but is unlikely to be able to do so again.
This is because her tactical win is wrapped in a strategic defeat. As we write, an extension motion will presumably pass the Commons, perhaps with predominate Labour support. But her deal is in no position to do so at a third attempt, assuming that the Speaker allows it to be put in the first place. If it can’t win next week, it won’t be put: that surely is the logic of setting a new deadline, if it doesn’t pass, to April 12. On paper, the option of No Deal will still exist then. In practice, it is likely soon to be suffocated.
For with little likelihood of the deal passing; with infuriated Remainers, distrustful Leavers, an alienated Whips Office, and a Chairman of the 1922 Committe who has reportedly told May to go, she is Prime Minister In Name Only. Yvette Cooper and Oliver Letwin are ready for a third bite of the cherry. Their bid to take over the negotiation, in effect, failed in January by 23 votes. A revived push at it from Hilary Benn fell last week by only two. It is very hard to believe that it will not be successful in some form a third time. The motion to revive it is already tabled.
The Speaker will ensure that it gets a fair wind. (His latest commitment to precedent is to revolutionise S024 motions – or so it appears.) The Second Referendum lobby is dropping its pretence of wanting a further vote, and is gradually revealing what has been its real aim all along: revocation. Letwin/Cooper are more likely to steer MPs towards Customs Union membership and perhaps Single Market membership, too. The House may not have settled on either by April 12. But the Commons would then surely vote for another extension.
On second and final thoughts, we apologise for offering certainties, or seeming to. Anything could happen yet. Pro-Remain Ministers could quit. So could Leave Ministers. The ERG could go on strike, and refuse to vote. The Whips’ Office could give up any attempt to stop them. Leadership candidates are raising money, announcing teams. No Deal could somehow slip through the cracks. But the drift is unmistakable. May endures. But the price she is paying for survival is powerlessness.