May. Treating you like a fool.

New Labour’s legacy is alive and well. When it trouble, don’t accept responsibility. Instead, blame someone else.

Books have been written about how Alastair Campbell, as Tony Blair’s Head of Communications, tabloidised the entire culture of government.  At the heart of the sweeping-away of old restraints and conventions was a feral instinct.  When in trouble, don’t admit error; don’t accept responsibility: instead, blame someone else.

If Theresa May’s broadcast this evening proved anything, it is that Campbell’s legacy of spin is alive and twitching.  Downing Street will have studied the polling.  As James Frayne has suggested on this site, its overall findings are ambiguous, but there is clearly frustration with the state of Brexit – and recognition among both Leave and Remain voters that it is not being delivered on time.

The Prime Minister thus sought to “frame the debate”, in the jargon of the trade.  So you, unhappy voter, are baffled, even angry?  Well, don’t blame me.  Blame those MPs!  Blame the politicians!  One might almost not have known from that she is herself an MP and the most senior politician in the land.

“I am on your side,” she declared, just in case viewers were too obtuse to get her point.  But May herself is playing as much of a game as any other of her 649 colleagues.  It is same-old-same-old: her chicken game.  Vote for my deal or there will be No Brexit.  Vote for my deal or there will be No Deal (depending on the need of the moment).  Her aim is to mobilise voters against the Commons.

Perhaps she will succeed.  Maybe her broadcast wowed the public  – though we doubt it.  Either way, there is one group of people among whom her gambit will have gone down with like a lorryroad of lukewarm vomit: her own colleagues.  It is a measure of the Prime Minister’s desperation that she no longer seems to care.  Who was it who used to say that “politics is not a game”?

Extension. Never mind the quality, feel the length.

The Prime Minister knows that a short extension is most likely to keep her in Downing Street. Which is why she always likely ultimately to back one.

In the now unlikely event of No Deal, the Prime Minister’s position should be secure, at least for a while.  It would be all hands to the pump, and “no time for a novice”.  If her deal passes through Parliament, Conservative MPs may then experience what one senior player calls a “sugar rush” – a brief sense of relief, well-being and confidence.  In such circumstances, May would have a window to try to dig in.  In the event of a short extension, the Conservative Parliamentary Party will have little motive to remove her, since a leadership election would be impracticable if the negotiation is up against a new spring deadline.

Only a long extension of, say, nine months or longer offers Tory MPs the chance to oust her quickly, through a combination of pressure from the 1922 Committee, the Cabinet and the voluntary party.  Although she cannot be challenged in a confidence ballot until the autumn, there are other ways of expressing no confidence in a party leader, or threatening to.  Some of these fall short of the nuclear option of voting with Labour in a no confidence motion, or at least abstaining.  For example, Conservative MPs could declare that they would table or support a motion to cut the Prime Minister’s salary in half.  This site has heard the option floated.

This background helps to explain why May was never likely to back a long extension.  Downing Street’s warning that it might, issued over the weekend to panic Tory holdouts into supporting her deal, always looked like an empty threat.  As we write, it can apparently be added to her long list of U-turns.  Here is part of that list again: holding a general election in 2017; controlling migration during transition; extending transition; putting her deal to the Commons in December; opposing a regulatory border in the Irish Sea. (Check out her “Road to Brexit”  video where she warned that this would keep Northern Ireland in “…parts of the Single Market. That would would break up the UK economically, and creating new barriers to our own internal market”.)  We can now add the 108 times she said that Brexit will take place on March 29.

At any rate, Number Ten is briefing this morning that “the Prime Minister won’t be asking for a long extension”.  There is a more urgent reason for her to clamber down off the fence she perched on yesterday, when her fellow Cabinet members were left unsure what length of extension she favours.  With the Soft Brexiteers (and Remainers) in favour of a long extension and her harder ones backing a short one, she kept her cards clasped to her chest.  Now she has been forced to move.  A majority of Conservative MPs voted against any extension at all last week.  May is due to address the 1922 Committee meeting this evening.  Things were about to get very ugly indeed.

We suspect that May’s real hope, with tomorrow’s EU council looming, was for an ambigious outcome – a short extension with the possibility of a longer one at the end.  Such an outcome would probably have come closest both to keeping her in place while not risking Cabinet resignations from either group of her divided ministers.  The EU does not seem to favour such an extension, assuming it grants one at all.  Some member states prefer a long extension; others, a short one.  Readers will remember that Olly Robbins forecast the former while drinking in a Brussels bar.  Very soon, we will know if he was right.

What will the EU do now?

A short extension would help to prop up May. A longer one might well bring her down – as well as ushering in a softer Brexit or none at all.

The EU has a choice to make on Thursday – assuming that the third “meaningful vote” (MV3) has not been tabled, debated and passed by then.  It could decide whether Theresa May is still Prime Minister this coming autumn.

The essence of John Bercow’s ruling yesterday is that the Prime Minister’s Brexit deal needs to be changed substantially before it is put to the Commons again.  His definition of substantial change suggests that texts on which the deal is based must themselves be altered if it is to be put to an MV3: further legal glosses on them won’t be enough.

So if there is indeed no MV3 before the EU summit this week, the only practicable course open to May is to ask the EU for changes to the Withdrawal Agreement or, more likely, to the Political Declaration, or both.  As well as for the extension for which she will request in any event.

If the EU wants to carry on negotiating with a May-led Government, it will offer a short extension, ending before the European Parliamentary elections in June, and alter the Political Declaration, which essentially is not of a binding character, or even the Northern Ireland and Ireland protocol in the Withdrawal Agreement (i.e: the backstop), which is.

If, however, the EU has given up on the Prime Minister, it will offer no changes to the texts at all, or only further new legal documents – which will presumably not satisfy the Speaker that his conditions for holding MV3 have been met.  Plus a long extension.

Either way, May has not handled recent EU summits adroitly.  Last December, Jean-Claude Juncker dismissed her Brexit position as “nebulous”.  Last September, it gave her Chequers plan the thumbs-down.

The best bet is that neither the EU27 nor the Commission form their positions on the basis of which Prime Minister they want to deal with, but on preserving their position.  In particular, they will surely stick by Ireland.

In which case, the EU could conclude that a short extension would concentrate MPs’ minds wonderfully.  That would probably be wishful thinking.  Rather, the Commission and EU consensus position as we write seems to be that a long extension is more likely to get them a result. Perhaps the summit will finesse some muddled middle way – an extension until June, say, with the option of a further one.  That is sometimes the way of these events.

But whatever happens, May now faces a new challenge to her core aim: namely, preserving her premiership.  This is because an extension of any length would open the door to Oliver Letwin and company seizing control of the negotiation.  And open up time, too, for a Tory leadership election.  In such a circumstance, the 1922 Committee and/or the Cabinet could finally force her out.

Downing Street may try to head off this threat to the Prime Minister’s position by getting the DUP’s support quickly, meeting the Speaker’s challenge, and putting MV3 to the test tomorrow evening. One suggestion is that May makes it clear that she will not allow Northern Ireland and Great Britain to diverge in regulatory or customs terms – a variant on the the so-called “Stormont lock”.

Whatever the merits or otherwise of such a proposal, it would be difficult for Bercow to argue that it did not represent a different deal to that put to the Commons for MV2 last week.  But betting on the Speaker being reasonable is not a gamble that this site would encourage anyone to take.

In any event, there is no sign that the Prime Minister would win MV3 this week even were she to get the DUP onside.  The “Spartans” are lined up and ready to oppose her deal at all costs.  There are almost certainly enough of these ERG and other Conservative holdouts to stop her deal getting through at third attempt tomorrow.

If the Speaker’s ruling somehow leads to the EU offering concessions, and MV3 then passes next week, he may actually end up having done her a favour.  But it is more likely that it offers her nothing of substance – to use a Bercowian word.

George Eustice’s logic looks sound.  The EU will offer a longish extension.  The Commons will swallow it.  The Government will then table a statutory instrument to take the March 29 date out of the EU Withdrawal Act.  Both Houses will then rush it through next week – whether MV3 has been passed by then, or even put at all.

Yes, it is possible that No Deal could still somehow slip through some Parliamentary or timetabling or procedural gap.  But the odds against that happening are very long.

The moment for which Bercow has waited since he was a tiny boy

The crude effect of his ruling, crafted and sprung on a hapless Downing Street, is to make a third meaningful vote unlikely this week, and perhaps next week too.

If no “meaningful vote” is held before March 29, Theresa May’s Withdrawal Agreement becomes MPs’ Withdrawal Agreement – as follows.  The Prime Minister agrees an extension with the EU this week.  Parliament confirms it next week and removes the date of Brexit from the EU Withdrawal Bill by means of a statutory instrument.  Either before or after the extension, a Letwin/Cooper alliance takes control of standing orders.  Brexit then passes into the hands of the House, which plumps for Customs Union membership; or Norway Plus, or a Second Referendum.

This chain of events may or may not take place, but what matters today is that the Speaker clearly thinks that it will.  Not even the mice in the Commons tea room believe he is an impartial umpire.  Perhaps there won’t be a Softer Brexit if May’s deal fails to come back to the House.  Maybe No Deal will instead slip through the procedural, timetabling and political cracks.  Perhaps Parliament will be prorogued.  Maybe MPs will stumble into the general election that they plainly doesn’t want.  The Speaker’s gamble is that none of these events will happen and that, if there is no further meaningful vote, Brexit will soften further or vanish altogether.  Which is what he wants.

Now it must be conceded that Bercow’s ruling – that the same Government motion should not be put to the Commons twice – has a point, and then some.  As he said, the second meaningful vote was different from the first, in that Ministers had new documents to put to the House: the joint instrument, the unilateral Government declaration, and so on.  But as far as we know, a third meaningful vote would not, as things stand, offer substantial change from the second.  There is some back and forth at the margins about the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties, but Geoffrey Cox has not changed his legal advice (as far as we know).

However, this is not the heart of the matter.  Let’s return to the concept of substantial change.  The Speaker will pronounce not only on the fact of any change but on its amount – in other words, on what change might or might not be substantial.  This distinction crosses a line from fact to art.  In consequence, Ministers must now seek changes to the deal, and hope that these can clear the bar which Bercow will set for them.  We can expect him to place it very high indeed.  How fast time moves!  Only a few weeks ago, he told the Commons that “if we only went by precedent, manifestly nothing would ever change”.  Then, he slighted precedent.  Now, he embraces it – 1604 and all.

“I am the law,” the Lord Chancellor declares contemptuously in The Madness of King George.  In his own mind at least, the Speaker is precedent.  He is Erskine May.  He is procedure.  He can only be overuled by being deposed – which surely, since he is the creature of one of the two main parties, won’t happen.  The crude effect of his ruling, crafted and sprung on a clueless Downing Street, is to make a third meaningful vote unlikely this week, and perhaps next week too.  Number Ten will thrash around looking for ways out – prorogation, election, challenging what it will claim is inconsistency between Bercow’s treatment of motions and amendments.

Once upon a time, a boy – small; slow to learn to speak; unpopular – sat on the wall outside his parents’ house, almost hidden by the copy of The Times which he was reading.  He may have dreamed, as small boys sometimes do, of revenge on those slighting him.  At any rate, he made it to the Commons, and wanted to be Prime Minister.  He fell out with his party.  The call to Number Ten never came.  But he could none the less still ache, in a diminished form, to be at the centre of events – shaping them; making history; being someone special.  In January, he gave that yearning trial expression.  Today, he has upped it to the next level.  Those childhood fantasies are coming true.

The truth about Nick Boles and Grantham & Stamford’s Conservative Association

Or as close to it as a site well-disposed to both can get in this fallen world. This is the story of a marriage gone horribly wrong.

Nick Boles is a modernisation hero: brave, original, independent-minded, witty, loyal and far too good for the provincial, scheming, purple-flavoured reactionaries of Grantham and Stamford’s Conservative Association.

Nick Boles is a egomaniacal poseur: a snooty, unstable, metro outsider who first looked down his nose at, and since has terminally let down, loyal and good-hearted activists who raised money, made calls, tramped streets and knocked on doors to get him elected.

You are hearing both versions at the moment.  And since Boles isn’t short of allies and admirers in the media, probably more of the first than the second.

As a friend of both, we are barred from taking sides.  So, as friends sometimes do, let us shape-shift into the role of marriage guidance counsellor – or commentator, at least.  And say right at the start that, at the heart of this story, is neither a infiltration-led putsch nor an establishment stitch-up, but a relationship that went horribly wrong.

It’s important to understand that the Association came to this marriage scarred, as those who enter second marriages often do.  Its first spouse, Quentin Davies, had suddenly gone bonkers in late middle age, and taken it into his head to run off with Gordon Brown.  Davies was quite an establishment sort of chap, previously a diplomat and banker.  So, in his different way, is Boles – a former Kennedy Scholar and think-tank head.  At any rate, the Association went straight from the one to the other.

At first, all seems to have gone well enough.  Boles’ career at Westminster went smoothly – almost swimmingly: he didn’t quite make the Cabinet, but became a very senior Minister of State, much admired for his bold ideas on planning and apprenticeships.  But he had a way of skiing off-piste.  For example, Boles called for the reinvention of the National Liberals.  This didn’t happen – but the Conservatives won the 2015 election without them, anyway.  He backed Remain in the EU referendum and his pro-Leave friend, Michael Gove, for the Tory leadership afterwards.  At this point, the local Association seems to have found their local MP’s adventures more stimulating than alarming.

Then Boles git very seriously ill with cancer.  For a while, he was a hero all round, wrenching himself from his hospital bed in order to vote for Article 50.  But even as his health recovered, thank goodness, the relationship deteriorated.

Every serious deselection attempt we know of has a back story.  EU policy may be in front of stage; but something else usually lurks at the back, tangled up with the scenery, wires, and lighting.  Nearly always, as in this case, it is the claim that the local MP isn’t in the constituency as often as he should be.

Such roughs are almost always smoothed over.  It is a cackhanded MP who cannot grease his way back into the affections of his activists.  And a truculent Association that is not prepared to give that MP the benefit of the doubt.  We suggest neither that Boles is the first nor the Association the second, but tensions somehow rose rather than receded.  It is as though the Association, or at least much of its leadership, was set on getting shot of Boles; and as though Boles – from early on the wrangle – was set on getting shot of it, in return.

Mark Wallace, ConservativeHome’s Boles & Grantham Correspondent, put his finger on the nub of the issue in January. “If feeling towards him was warmer generally in the Association, people would say ‘oh, move on’”, one experienced activist argues, “but instead, he doesn’t have that electoral goodwill in the bank.”

At any rate, highlights from the domestic tiff include Boles opposing No Deal and Philip Sagar, the Association’s Chairman, supporting it if necessary.  Boles said that he would resign the Conservative whip if thus would be required to block the move.  (Which, as we now know, it wasn’t.)  His Chairman said the threat was “unpatriotic”.  In our view, the Association might have lived with Boles’ attachment to Norway-then-Canada, sorry, Norway Plus, sorry, Common Market 2.0.  After all, there are plenty of other Tory MPs who are pushing the scheme.  None that we know of faces a serious deselection push.  But in none, perhaps, did the relationship between MP and Association run so deep into the sand.

Anyway, the breakdown gathered pace.  The Association Executive called a special meeting; resolved to ask Boles to apply to be the Conservative candidate at the next election, and planned – very clearly – to deny him that privilege.  Boles told them to bog off – well, not in quite so many words, but that was the sum of his response.  He was under no obligation under Party rules to play ball.  And (please note) Downing Street, CCHQ and the Whips Office have backed him up throughout.

As is sometimes the case when marriages start to go bust, one of the spouses began to be seen with third parties downturn.  Boles tweeted that he and other Tory MPs would work with the opposition to stop No Deal.  That they had learned to “ignore” whips, “shrug off” deselection attempts, and work with “friends” from the other side of the chamber.  He warned that if May backtracked on commitments that he supported she would “forefeit the confidence of the House of Commons”.  That sounded a bit like a threat to vote with Labour to bring the Government down.  He dined with the devil – or rather met with Jeremy Corbyn, to discuss Norway Plus. He said that Jess Phillips would make “a great Prime Minister”.  For local activists who have clocked who she is, this may have been the unkindest cut of all.

And so to last weekend.  It is important to note that Boles was not deselected.  He had fended off the Association’s executive – and CCHQ was backing him up.

Rather, he has gone voluntarily.  As his letter of explanation put it: “I am not willing to do what would be necessary to restore a reasonable working relationship with a group of people whose views and values are so much at odds with my own.”  He has packed his bags and departed the house – leaving a raging spouse to trash the dress, jump up and down on the wedding photos, dial Canada’s speaking clock from the smartphone he forgot to take with him, and slash holes in the crotches of his underpants.

Where does that leave the friends of both?  Thinking, at the end – what a waste, on both sides: of time, promise, Boles’ talents, activists’ commitment and (who knows?) even a kind of love.

Boles has not left the Conservative whip, let alone the Conservative Party.  There is no obligation we know of which requires the local MP to join his local Association.  He could always seek a candidacy elsewhere.  But were he so minded, would another Association be intrepid enough to take him?  As for Grantham and Stamford, our advice, for what it’s worth, is: next time round, after Davies and Boles, select someone reassuringly dull.

Enter – or rather exit – the Spartans

A dedicated band of Conservative pro-Brexit holdouts stands ready to perish rather than let May’s deal pass.

The battle of Thermopylae is famous in legend for the sacrifice of 300 Spartans.  They died in battle, but saved their city.  The tale has a modern day Brexit resonance.

As we approach a third “meaningful” vote on Theresa May’s Brexit deal, the number of Conservative MPs still willing to oppose it is falling.  It was 118 in January, and 75 last week.

Switchers for last Tuesday’s second vote included David Davis, Graham Brady, Philip Davies and our columnist, Robert Halfon.  Among those who now suggest that they will switch on a third are Esther McVey, Simon Clarke and Daniel Kawczynski.

Which returns us to Thermopylae.

ConservativeHome is told that a hardcore of those determined to hold out now refer to themselves as “the Spartans”.  These include a significant chunk of the ERG – though calculations are complicated by the fact that not all those who oppose the deal are ERG members.

If the Prime Minister’s deal gets through, among the corpses of MPs slain in the pass should be those of: Peter Bone, Bill Cash, Christoper Chope, Mark Francois, Andrea Jenkyns, John Redwood and, we believe, Steve Baker.

Others who died at Thermopylae include Thespians, Helots and Thebans, history tells us.

Readers must decide for themselves which of these labels best describe Dominic Grieve’s band of pro-Second Referendum holdouts, but they, too, will surely stick against May’s deal – a fact that many of our media colleagues tend to overlook.

Last week, they included Guto Bebb, Damian Collins, Justine Greening, Sam Gyimah, Jo Johnson, and Grieve himself.  It is unlikely that many of them will peel off.

As we write, Downing Street is striving to win the DUP over to the deal.

If it succeeds, the calculation for May will be whether enough Opposition MPs will back her deal to cancel out the Spartans who oppose it.  We would say that the former are among the Persians, but are in danger of stretching this historical analogy way too far.

Among those well placed to pronounce on the question is Boris Johnson.  What will he do when the vote comes?  Will he stand with the Spartans, and return “with my shield or on it”, as he sometimes likes to write?  Or will he swap sides and join the Persians?

His Daily Telegraph column today is ambiguous on the point.  We are less qualified to pronounce on classical history than the former Foreign Secretary, but can’t help questioning whether the analogy holds at all.

For in this case, the city wouldn’t be saved if the Spartans are massacred, since a consequence of their defeat would be the deal passing.

And in any case, this time round, the Spartans may actually win.

Would May agree to go quickly to get her deal through? She may yet hint at it. But watch the small print.

The idea might suit the leadership aspirations of some potential successors. But wishful thinking and stubborn reality don’t mix – at least not in this case.

Some hold Theresa May entirely to blame for the Government’s current condition – and Brexit’s.  They argue variously that she has never believed in it, or else given way to Remainers, or to else to Brexiteers, or else been “adamant for drift”, or else been run by Olly Robbins, or else simply cocked everything up, especially since calling the 2017 election.  Others claim that it is unjust to make her carry the can, amidst a divided Party, Commons, Parliament and Country.  Our own take is somewhere between the two.

Whichever view Conservative MPs take, they should all agree on one point – namely, that there is no sign of May wanting to leave Downing Street.  Prime Ministers almost never go willingly.  The only exception we can think of recently is Harold Wilson – and he was ill, so shouldn’t really count.  No, May looks dug in for the moment, unless there is a long extension.

Perhaps she will surprise us all.  Maybe she will emerge from Number Ten, for no apparent reason, to announce publicly that she is willing to resign.  But we doubt it.  It is more likely that, if the Prime Minister’s back is up against the wall, as it was during December’s leadership challenge, hints will be dropped and briefings given – but no pledge offered of an immediate departure.

Nor is there a means of forcing her out quickly.  There can be no ballot until next autumn. The 1922 Committee won’t move quickly.  Nor will the riven, quarrelling Cabinet.    Its Soft Brexiteers want to prop her up, for fear of Boris Johnson or Dominic Raab succeeding her – and of a new leader firing Philip Hammond.  The harder ones have lost their mojo.

Other potential successors, such as if Jeremy Hunt or Sajid Javid, will not want to spearhead a putsch, or try to – partly on the principle that he who wields the dagger never wears the etc.  (“After you, Saj.”  No, after you, Jeremy.)  So the suggestion that the Prime Minister might be prepared to stand down to get her deal through falls at the first hurdle – namely, that there’s no sign of her playing ball.

Tory MPs will be hunkering down for Meaningful Vote Three this weekend.  It will bring both principle and pragmatism into play, and the calculations they must make are not easy.  We will say more about the choice later this week.  But as they ponder the future, they can surely banish one scenario from their minds – namely, May quitting, during the next few days, in order to let her deal pass.  That might suit the leadership aspirations of some potential successors.  But wishful thinking and stubborn reality don’t mix, at least in this case.

A window for May’s deal, extensions, ultimatums, rebel Ministers, attempts to oust her, a waiting Letwin – and Cox’s Viennese codpiece

The morning after the day on which Brexit may have died. On which the politicians failed the people – and deliberately defied the referendum result.

  • There are four possible Brexit outcomes: No Deal, No Brexit (presumably after a second referendum), May’s Deal or a different deal (Norway Plus – or something like it).  The EU may offer extension terms that the Commons is unwilling to accept.  Or the legislation to remove March 29 from the EU Withdrawal Act may not pass.  Or a new departure date may kick in at the end of extension.  But after this week’s events in the House, the odds of No Deal have receded dramatically.
  • This being so, Theresa May will now surely bring her deal – perhaps revised further and perhaps not – back to the Commons next week.  Yes, her chicken game goes on.  She is threatening Brexiteer MPs with a choice of her deal or No Brexit.  Her gambit is slowly working.  On Wednesday, 39 former Conservative MP opponents switched, and went into the Government lobby.
  • But time – or maybe speed – is not on her side.  Slowly isn’t fast enough.  Her deal lost first time round by 230. Last week, by 149. Look down the list of names of the 75 Tory MPs who held out against her deal on Tuesday: Bill Cash, Mark Francois, Andrea Jenkyns – these Leavers and others are almost certain to hold out.  And don’t forget their Remain equivalents: Justine Greening, Dominic Grieve, Phillip Lee.
  • There are doubtless Labour and other opposition MPs who would vote for May’s deal in a secret ballot.  But they are unlikely to come on board until or unless they believe she will win.  Until they move, she can’t do so; if she can’t do so, they won’t move.  Standoff.  No wonder Downing Street is now mulling a fourth “meaningful vote” after the EU Council on March 21.
  • What could shift some of those 75 Tory holdouts to join those 39 switchers?  A slice of the former are looking for a reason to jump.  It may yet be offered by Geoffrey Cox, by way of the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties.  Edward Leigh has been banging this drum for weeks.  Steve Barclay tapped lightly on it during his speech on Wednesday.
  • The Attorney-General believes the convention can ultimately be invoked if the EU behaves unreasonably – and that under its provisions the UK could quit the backstop unilaterally in such circumstances.  The Brexit Secretary’s words seemed to show that Cox has converted the Government to his view that the Withdrawal Agreement will be incompatible with the Belfast Agreement if the EU reneges on its obligations.
  • But practical politics may prove more persuasive than international law (and in any event, the potential efficacy of deploying the convention is disputed).  If the DUP shifts to support the deal, some of those 75 will follow, on the ground that one should not be more royal than the king.  Jacob Rees leans in that direction; Francois against it.
  • The prospect of a third meaningful vote has given May a window: try to rush her deal through before Hillary Benn, Oliver Letwin, Yvette Cooper et al have their own third bite at the cherry – namely, getting the Commons to take control of the negotiation.  Cooper’s bid in January failed by 23 votes.  Yesterday, Benn’s fell by only two.  The cross-party push is nearing its goal.  If May fails next week, it will surely succeed.
  • Which takes us to the EU.  Its negotiating ploy now will presumably be to offer a long extension, watch the protests from the Government and Commons alike…and wait for both to duly fold – thus fulfilling the prophecy of George Eustice.  Faced with a choice of a long extension or No Deal on March 29, MPs will surely opt for the former.
  • If May’s deal goes down again next week, the landscape looks roughly as follows.  The March 29 date comes out of law (which it is set to do either way).  There is a long extension.  Letwin and company take control of the Commons.  And a scrabble to the death begins between backers of Norway Plus and a Second Referendum, with the European Research Group regularly hurling spanners into the works.
  • Whether or not her deal passes, the Prime Minister’s goose looks well and truly caught, if not cooked.  If the deal wins out, there will be a clamour from Conservative MPs for someone else to negotiate the talks on the Political Declaration.  If it doesn’t, and there is a long extension, she is vulnerable to attempts to oust her.  Graham Brady or some Cabinet members or both would use the time to try to winkle her out.
  • No wonder Downing Street is pushing for a short extension: it would help keep May in place for a few months yet – because none of those players believe that the Conservatives could hold a leadership election during a negotiation set against a tight June deadline.  Whatever happens, the Party faces trouble on the doorstep and in the ballot box during May’s local elections.
  • Meanwhile, Party discipline is breaking down completely.  One of the reasons why the Prime Minister fended off Benn yesterday was the backlash against Greg Clark, David Gauke, David Mundell and Amber Rudd – the defiers of the whip from Tuesday.  They and others didn’t dare abstain again.  But the trend is clear – with one Tory Brexiteer, Chris Chope, threatening to help bring the Government down.
  • Meanwhile, Labour has its own problems: its split on a second referendum yesterday was only the latest of many.  In the event of Letwin and allies taking control of the Commons, Jeremy Corbyn and Labour would have the opportunity to help shape a Norway Plus-type Brexit.  Would they want to share the responsibility – and the blame?  What about the pro-second referendum policy that Corbyn clearly detests?
  • “For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face”.  This attempt to think through what happens next could be wildly wrong – the EU could end up vetoing extension altogether, for example.  But we are clearly witnessing a political realignment within the parties if not outside them altogether.  The shifting of those tectonic plates has thrown up the Independent Group and the Brexit Party.
  • MPs don’t want a general election, but one may somehow be forced on them.  It is the logical endpoint of Commons stalemate.  But a poll would be unlikely to bring resolution.  And it would certainly risk mass abstention – or else Lega Nord and La Marche-style revolts: with Nigel Farage, or something harder, at one end and Gina Miller, so to speak, at the other.

The Commons votes to extend Article 50. The Government no longer supports leaving the EU on March 29.

Some will say that this is the day on which Brexit died. On which the politicians failed the people – and deliberately defied the referendum result.

The Government’s extension motion passes by 412 – 202.

If it is backed up by legislation, the UK will no longer leave the EU on March 29 (assuming the EU plays ball).

Theresa May’s plan is now to get her deal through by means of a Meaningful Vote Three next week – and then seek a short extension until June 30.

That could happen.

However, it is arguably just as likely that a Brexit which is extended will turn out to be a Brexit that never happens.  Some will say that this is the day on which Brexit died.  On which the politicians failed the people – and deliberately defied the referendum result.

And they may be right.

Either way, those 202 MPs will mostly be Conservatives.  We gather that Steve Barclay, Liam Fox, Liz Truss and Gavin Williamson “plus half the whips office” opposed the Government’s motion.

Full division list of Conservatives who voted for and against extension coming.

May keeps control of the negotiation. She fends off Benn, Letwin, Cooper and company by two votes – 314 to 312

Key to her victory is yesterday’s Remainer / Soft Brexit Cabinet and other rebels falling into line after a Party backlash today.

Theresa May has not necessarily fended off indicative votes – which would open the way to Norway Plus and a Second Referendum being considered.

After all, David Lidington indicated earlier this afternoon that the Government itself would provide such votes in some circumstances.

What she has done is prevent Hillary Benn, Yvette Cooper, Uncle Oliver Letwin et al from seizing control of the Commons timetable – and therefore in effect of the negotiation.

Key to her victory is yesterday’s Remainer / Soft Brexit Cabinet and other rebels falling into line after a Party backlash today.

The Prime Minister has lived to fight another day.  This result gives her a Parliamentary breathing-space which will allow her to prepare to bring her deal back next week, if that’s ruled to be in order, for Meaningful Vote Three.