First time round, ConservativeHome advised Tory MPs to vote against the Withdrawal Agreement, so that concessions could be gained on the backstop.
For the second meaningful vote, we pointed out that Theresa May was seeking to bounce MPs into supporting the Agreement before they had time to study four new documents from the EU – and that they should therefore continue to oppose it.
Third time round, later in the same month, we concluded that those documents were meaningful, that they offered concessions which were real, and that trust in the Prime Minister was already so damaged that it no longer mattered, from the point of public confidence in our political system, whether or not MPs voted for the deal or against it.
Which brings us to the Prime Minister’s fourth go at getting the Agreement passed – this time through the fully-fledged medium of a Bill.
Not a word of the Agreement has been changed since it was voted down for the third time in March. But, since then, May’s position has deteriorated further. And the 1922 Committee’s Executive has effectively told her that she must go soon whether the Agreement passes or not.
Her response to this erosion of her personal position, as demonstrated in her speech yesterday evening, is to double down on her approach to Jeremy Corbyn, and throw herself on the mercy of the Labour Party. In a nutshell, she has proposed a bargain to the Commons: add anything you like to the Bill as long as you’re prepared to pass it.
This includes for the first time a specific commitment to seek to hold a second referendum on EU membership if the Commons votes for one. It follows that May is so desperate to pass the Agreement – thereby leaving a legacy other than of total defeat – that she is willing to propose within it the means of its own destruction.
Put aside for the moment the rights and wrongs of her doing so. Very simply, there is no sign that her gambit will work, regardless of any merits that her plan may or may not have. The referendum offer isn’t enough for Keir Starmer and the confirmatory vote fanatics of the Labour Party. But it is too much for Boris Johnson, Dominic Raab, Iain Duncan Smith, David Davis and 23 other Conservative MPs who have now switched from supporting the Agreement last time round to opposing it.
So if put to the Commons, it will go down to a bigger defeat than in late March – reversing what progress the Prime Minister has made in whittling down opposition to it during the course of the year. It is therefore now doubtful whether or not a Bill proposing it is put to the House after the Whitsun recess, and maybe at all.
Whether it is or isn’t, May’s departure from Downing Street will now be accelerated. Putting the Bill to the Commons would mean defeat, which she could not survive. But withholding it would mean statis. That would send Graham Brady and company to ask her to go, and change the leadership challenge rules were she to refuse.
At the heart of the Prime Minister’s failure is the collapse of trust. She pledged over a hundred times that Britain would leave the EU on March 29. She then said that she was not prepared to delay Brexit later than the end of June. And she added that holding European elections would be “unacceptable“.
These broken commitments have led directly to the collapse of the Conservative poll rating. In a nutshell, the former UKIP voters lured to the blue column in the wake of the referendum result have gone to the Brexit Party.
There is no sign of them coming back any time soon. Indeed, the longer May continues in Downing Street, the greater the damage to the Tory brand. The failure to leave the EU on time may join the Iraq War and the expenses scandal as a symbol of a corrupted political class. She is scorching the earth that her successor will inherit.
Which brings us to that European election tomorrow. The Pope is a Catholic, bears do what everyone knows they do in the woods, and ConservativeHome advises its readers to vote Tory. The best one for doing so continues to apply: namely, that it is better to be represented by Conservatives than not, especially if they include those of the calibre of, say, Syed Kamall, our columnist Daniel Hannan and Emma McClarkin.
However, there is a flaw in this usual logic – namely, that these elections should not be taking place. That they are happening concedes the possibility that we will not leave the EU in October, or perhaps afterwards. It is this raising of two fingers to the referendum result that has collapsed the Conservative position.
The Tory leadership knows this as well as you or I do, and is so embarrassed by it that it has scarcely campaigned. The Party’s website front page bears no reference to tomorrow’s poll. Its Twitter feed is so embarrassed that it has put up plugs for the cause only over the last 24 hours. At least one campaigning leaflet doesn’t mention Brexit at all.
A single photo sums the situation up – of a despondent May leaving the stage, at a campaign launch with no audience present and a single journalist reporting, while Ashley Fox winces in the background and three cheerless other candidates fail to raise a single smile between them. It is the photographic equivalent of clinical depression.
Furthermore, the rushed selection timetable leaves many Tory voters in a bind. Rightly or wrongly, members have had no input. Which means some unpalatable choices.
If you are a pro-Brexit voter in the North-West, you have no alternative, if willing to vote Conservative, than to plump for pro-Remain devotee Sajid Karim, who tops the list. If you are an anti-Brexit one in the South-East, you must do the same for Hannan. For some, this will not be incentive to vote in either case.
No wonder most Tory MPs have scarcely campaigned, if they have done so at all. Add up the number of Conservative councillors who will either vote for another party or abstain, and you have well over two in five. Among Party members, according to our survey, it will be more than three in five.
The 1922 Committee Executive meets today. It has already pointed the Prime Minister towards the exit door. It should now take her gently by the arm, and steer her through it as soon as possible. A new leader should be in place by the end of this Parliamentary session.
As for tomorrow, we cannot but ask how we can have confidence in the Conservative campaign, when the Party itself clearly doesn’t? Ann Widdecombe is standing for the Brexit Party. Michael Heseltine is voting for the Liberal Democrats. Both these gestures strike us as a step too far.
But as matters stand, those Tories who have not already voted should take a leaf out of the book of the late Frank Maguire, once the independent (and usually absent) republican MP for Fermanagh and South Tyrone. In the crucial no confidence vote that brought down the Callaghan Government, he flew to Westminster to “abstain in person”.