Some said that Theresa May would bring the Withdrawal Agreement back to the Commons before next week’s European elections. Others, that she would this week publish the Bill intended to put it into effect. Others still, that she would hold a series of indicative votes before next Thursday. Others yet that she would do nothing at all.
In the end, she has taken the course she was always most likely to – namely, to let it be known that the Bill will be introduced, at long last, when the Commons returns in June after the Whitsun recess. This plan serves two main purposes.
First, the timing is intended to put maximum pressure on Labour, not to mention Conservative MPs, after both the main parties get a mauling from the Brexit Party in next week’s elections, and perhaps in the Peterborough by-election on June 6 too.
Second (and more urgently) the announcement is also crafted to stave off the 1922 Committee’s Executive, which meets with her tomorrow to demand a clear timetable for her exit from Downing Street.
For she will now be able to tell them that there is one – irrespective of whether the Bill gets a second reading or not. If it does, she has promised to quit, though with no clear timetable. If it doesn’t, she could clearly not survive in office, for all her tenacious grip on it.
Her intention is now reported to be to stand down, either way, before the Conservative Party Conference in October, but the precise timing is unclear. And there is many a slip ‘twixt the cup and the lip.
After all, Number Ten has promised votes before that have not materialised. And why should it not balk at one that it is set to lose – thus bringing an end to the Prime Minister’s term in office?
For the DUP are still not supportive of the Agreement. Nor are the “Spartans”. Some of those Tory MPs who supported it third time round might revert to opposing it – as they did first time round.
None the less, May clearly still hopes to get Labour onside. To stand a chance of that, she would have to concede on formal Customs Union membership, perhaps at committee stage. Which would flout her manifesto, split her Party – and finally drive Liam Fox, and some other Brexiteering Cabinet Ministers, to resign. The ’22 Executive will want to probe her closely on that point tomorrow.
They will also want a firm date for her departure. Frankly, today would do as well as any other: the longer she stays in Downing Street, the more poisoned the well will be for her successor. But the commitment to introduce the Bill in early June, plus the naming of a date, would doubtless be enough to satisfy the Executive.
All in all, the Prime Minister could yet find some way of wriggling out of a June vote. However, in such a circumstance the ’22 Executive would have no alternative but to change the leadership challenge rules, and in the aftermath of next week and Peterborough there would almost certainly be a ballot. Even if May survived it, the next hurdle would be that National Convention Meeting on June 15.
She is the past master or mistress of kicking the can down the long and winding road but, this morning, the end of her unhappy journey really does seem to be in sight. That can is being kicked towards the edge of a cliff.