May plays her last card, but the House fails to fold

Theresa May has played her last card, offering to sacrifice her leadership in order to get her Brexit deal over the line. In truth the sacrifice is minimal. Her premiership has, in effect, been over for weeks. With her political demise imminent, Mrs May is offering to put herself and her party out of its misery if she is afforded the dignity of leaving on her own terms.

The unstated aspect of this compact with her MPs is that if they do not back her deal she will be staying on a while longer. It is a curious inversion of normal politics. If she fails she stays; if she succeeds she goes. Should the gambit work it will confirm her self image as someone with a strong sense of duty. If the gambit works … 

And here is the snag. While the early signs were that her announcement had broken the logjam among hardliners in her own party, it may still not be enough.

MPs who last week were fighting her on a matter of principle are now surrendering at the first whiff of a leadership contest. Within hours, Boris Johnson had jumped on board with the government that two days earlier he had hyperbolically denounced as having “blinked, baulked and bottled”. 

Friends explained that a change of leader afforded him more comfort that the next stage of negotiations will be more to his taste and that, with no-deal off the table, this was as good as it was going to get for the Brexiters.

Iain Duncan Smith, former party leader and another of the visitors to the PM at Chequers on Sunday, also declared that he would be backing the deal.

By 9pm estimates of the number of Tory hardline holdouts was falling into low double figures.

Not that this is necessarily sufficient. The dozen or so Tory remainers mean that Mrs May will still need at least 20 Labour MPs, while Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionists are still looking decidedly unconvinced.

This undoubtedly is the prime minister’s best chance, but at the moment she is still looking short of the votes and her last card has been played. There is also the small matter of a Commons Speaker who seems determined to preventing her from putting her deal before MPs unamended.

In keeping with the style of so much of her premiership Mrs May delivered her pledge, not to voters, nor to parliament but to a private meeting of Tory MPs, with the words sent out to journalists. Over in the chamber of the Commons, MPs were finally having the debate they should have had two years ago — a debate forced on the government by an extraordinary procedure that saw MPs taking over the parliamentary timetable. MPs from all sides debated compromise options for a soft Brexit as well as remainer plans to revoke Article 50 or to hold a second referendum. The debate was intelligent, civilised and all that the Commons should be on a matter of grave national importance.

Not that all went smoothly for the remain-minded majority. It was clear that some groups were not prepared to abandon their pet schemes in the spirit of compromise. Although MPs were given the right to vote for more than one option, the Scottish National party signalled that it would not back soft-Brexit options in order to maximise the chance of winning a second referendum. The SNP’s ploy might prove costly.

The result was that no option secured a majority, although the second referendum and the permanent customs union came closest. MPs will get another chance on Monday if Mrs May’s deal has not passed before then. The second referendum was 27 votes away from success.

To recap. Mrs May said she would resign to get her deal through. Many, but not enough, of the holdouts decided that this was sufficient to finally back the deal. The Speaker meanwhile suggested that he might not allow the PM to bring the deal back and MPs failed to give majority support to any alternative plan.

Almost nothing is yet clear but perhaps the options have at least narrowed. Mrs May expects to make one more run at her deal possibly as soon as Friday but, without the support of the DUP, she still looks some way from victory. MPs may not have coalesced around another option but it has probably reduced the alternatives to two options — permanent customs union and a second referendum. Both came a lot closer than the May deal at its last attempt. The latter finally has the parliamentary momentum it sought.

And yet, in one sense, Wednesday night offered the worst of all outcomes because, as long as multiple factions have hope, they have little reason to compromise. Neither the referendum backers nor supporters of the customs union will wish to give ground to the other or to get behind Mrs May. Equally, hardliners may see renewed hope for a no-deal exit that is just two weeks away.

Where once there were two choices, no-deal or the May plan; now there are four. In Brexit, as one door opens another slams in your face.




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