Andrew Gimson’s Commons sketch: For Cox to speak with such force suggested how desperate May’s predicament has become.

The Attorney General suggested it would be absurd to reject the Government’s motion merely because of the Northern Ireland backstop.

The inexhaustible riches of Geoffrey Cox’s advocacy poured over the Tory benches as he opened for the Government on the final day of the Brexit debate.

Here was a lost cause worthy of the Attorney General’s powers. He boomed, he declared, he pleaded, he went quiet for a moment, he turned again and again to face the Conservative benches, he jabbed his finger at his opponents on his own side, told them not to behave like children, lauded compromise as if he were Moses leading the chosen people through the wilderness towards a land flowing with milk and honey.

Beside him sat the Prime Minister. She looked white with exhaustion, mournful, almost hopeless. Yet during the hour he spoke, she revived like a wilting pot plant rescued at the last moment by a drink of water.

Cox opened by praising “the most passionate appeal to understand the role of compromise” voiced at midnight last night by the Member for Gedling – a Labour MP, Vernon Coaker, who according to Cox had been “heartfelt and eloquent”.

So the Government still hopes it can get its motion through with the help of Labour moderates. That at least was what Cox appeared to imply.

But as Rachel Reeves complained from the Labour benches near the end of this performance, for most of the time Cox turned to address his own party. Even the Speaker, John Bercow, asked the Attorney General to address the House rather than the Conservative Party: “This perambulation is very uncommon and irregular.”

“You upbraid me entirely justly,” Cox replied. But for the rest of the time, he did the upbraiding: “What are you playing at? What are you doing? You are not children in the playground, you are legislators.”

And as legislators, they must understand it would be “the height of irresponsibility” to pull the rug from under anyone who needs legal certainty, and can only get it if Parliament accepts the procedure for leaving the European Union which the Government has negotiated.

The Attorney General offered the curious analogy of an air lock, which we must enter in order to adjust our bodies to the different pressure we shall find when we pass through the second door on the far side and begin life outside the European Union.

Hilary Benn suggested, from the Labour benches, that beyond that second door lies “a complete vacuum”. Cox insisted on the contrary that we would find a “bright new world”.

But he offered another analogy. Removing ourselves from the EU is “as if we were to separate from a living organism with all its arteries and veins”.

It is a dangerous and complicated operation, about which we must be wholly pragmatic: “Do we opt for order or do we choose chaos?”

We cannot hurl the one million British citizens living on the continent of Europe, and the three million Europeans living here, “into a legal void”.

If MPs vote down the motion, “the path to Brexit becomes shrouded in uncertainty…and because of the Northern Ireland backstop”.

Cox had done his best to make rejecting the motion merely because of the backstop seem absurd, dangerous and disproportionate. When he realised he was in danger of going on too long, he quickly and skilfully brought his remarks to a close.

He had at least managed to cheer up the Prime Minister. Indeed, with this bravura performance, he had cheered up many people who are heartily sick of the whole Brexit debate.

But for him to need to speak with such force suggested also how desperate the Government’s predicament has become.

Andrew Gimson’s Commons sketch: Lidington is no Horatius

He defended the absent Prime Minister with decency and moderation, but neither Labour nor Conservative MPs were persuaded.

Then out spake spake brave Horatius, the Captain of the Gate. Or this afternoon, out spake David Lidington, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster.

The Prime Minister was in Berlin, where she was reported to be having difficulty getting out of her car. Labour MPs were in Westminster, where they were having difficulty conveying how cross they were with the Prime Minister for pulling the meaningful vote on the Withdrawal Agreement.

Yvette Cooper warned of  the danger of having “no vote on the deal and no vote on no deal”.  Nicky Morgan, from the Conservative benches, wanted “a categorical assurance that there will be no trickery by the Government”.

In the words of Hilary Benn, “What we learned yesterday was that today’s assurances can disappear tomorrow like a puff of wind.” Angela Eagle said the Prime Minister “has completely shredded her credibility”.

Angela Smith agreed that “the Government’s credibility is in shreds”, and added that “what we’re facing now is not a meaningful vote but a blackmail strategy”.

Thangam Debbonaire said “the Government is trying to hold a no deal Brexit gun to the country’s head”.

These trifling criticisms were fielded by Robin Walker, a junior Brexit minister, who said the meaningful vote would happen at latest on 21st January, but declined to be any more specific.

Jeremy Corbyn then opened for Labour in the emergency debate on the Government’s management of the meaningful vote.

He said Theresa May had “demeaned her office”, and accused her of “running away”. But Corbyn himself ran away from calling a vote of no confidence.

He too, it appears, is not all that keen on meaningful votes. When he accused the Prime Minister of “weak leadership”, one felt he knew of what he spoke.

Lidington rose to reply. He pointed out that in the last two months, the Prime Minister has spent “more than 22 hours at this Despatch Box”. He said that 21st January is “a deadline and not a target”, and added that “we need to push on with this sooner rather than later”.

But unlike Horatius, Lidington did not kill anyone. That is one reason why MPs like Lidington. He is not a killer.

And he treats his opponents with respect. “It’s a fair question,” as he told Benn. Lidington is admired for his decency and moderation.

All that roused Lidington to a flash of passion was the “fantasy” that one can have all the benefits of EU membership without its obligations. That thought annoyed him.

After he had spoken, the criticisms of the Prime Minister continued. Sir William Cash said she has “reached the point of no return” and “may well have to resign”. Morgan canvassed the idea of a government of national unity.

Horatius saved Rome. It does not look as if Lidington can save May.

Chris White: A guide to what could happen in the Commons this week

I set out what could happen – and translate what the amendments to the Government’s motion mean.

Chris White was Special Adviser to Patrick McLoughlin, when the latter served as Chief Whip, as well as to Andrew Lansley and William Hague when each served as Leader of the House. He is now Managing Director of Newington Communications.

On Tuesday, the Government will face its toughest test – trying to get its Withdrawal Agreement through Parliament. Eight hours of debate will be followed by a series of votes that will decide the future of the UK, as well as the Prime Minister and the Conservative Party. The stakes could not be higher.

Over 100 Conservative MPs have publicly declared they will vote against the Theresa May’s deal. Yet it is important to remember that there might not even be a vote on the deal. Equally, an amendment could pass which if won, would mean no vote on the Government’s Withdrawal Agreement. Below I set out what could happen, as well as translate what the motions actually mean.

The Government caves in and changes the Parliamentary business, or fails to move the vote, because it knows it is going to lose

The numbers look terrible for the Government, and there have been no MPs who have publicly swapped sides to endorse the Prime Minister’s deal. The reality of the situation is that the Government knows that it is going to lose, and so could decide to pull the vote and seek state that it accepts it won’t get it through Parliament. Graham Brady, Chair of the 1922 Committee, took the highly unusual step of recommending this in the media. This would be highly embarrassing, but would avoid a humiliating defeat, with the Prime Minister forced to go back to Brussels to renegotiate. There are two ways of doing this:

  • Emergency Business Statement: The Leader of the Commons, Andrea Leadsom, either on Monday or Tuesday at the start of Parliamentary business, makes a statement changing the business for the day, pulling the last day of debate and the votes.
  • The Government Minister winding up the debate ‘talks out’ the votes: The business motion for the debate has been cleverly drafted – under section 10 (c), only a Minister may move a closure, which basically means if they are still standing and speaking at the end of the debate, the votes won’t be moved.

An amendment to the Government motion is passed, politically changing the deal

In the table below I’ve listed the 13 amendments tabled so far by MPs. Of these, six will be selected by the Speaker – it’s not certain which he will select, but some have more chance than others – my current thinking is amendments (a) (b) (i) (k) (l) and (m). It’s unlikely that the official Labour one would succeed – amendment (a) – as Tory MPs and the DUP won’t support it, and of the others:

Hilary Benn – amendment (i) explicitly rejects the UK leaving on no deal, and demands the Government move straight to the final Parliamentary debate under the terms of the EU Withdrawal Act. This is the one which the Government lost a vote on last week, which basically means that Parliament is able to direct Government politically which course of action it should pursue. Whilst this isn’t binding under legislation, and the Government could still theoretically leave under no deal terms, it would be politically challenging to do so.

Backbench Conservative – there are three motions which seek to do similar things (b) (e) and (f) – force the Government to place a time limit on the NI backstop, or to reject the backstop. Even if this passed, the UK Government would have to seek agreement from the EU.

Liberal Democrat – amendment (l) calls on the UK Government to hold a second referendum. This would require primary legislation, and even if passed swiftly, such a referendum could not be held within the next 5 months because of the time needed to organise.

No amendments are passed, but the main Government motion fails as well

In this scenario, all votes fail, and the Commons fails to both pass the Withdrawal Agreement, and direct the Government what to do next. This would be hugely damaging to the Prime Minister. Under the EU Withdrawal Act the Government has 21 days to make a statement to the Commons setting out what it plans to do next, and within seven days of that statement the Government must bring forward a motion for the House to consider. This motion can now be amended following the Government’s defeat next week, and the Commons would be able to express a view on what to do next, though this would not be binding on the Government.

What could happen next?

If the Government motion fails, and all amendments fail, then there are several things that might happen:

  • May could face a vote of no confidence in the Commons. Kier Starmer has said that Labour would table a vote, but with the DUP stating that they would support the Conservatives in such a vote, this is unlikely to succeed. If the Government did fall, there would be 14 days for another Government to win a vote of confidence in the Commons, or the country will have a General Election.
  • Conservative MPs put in 48 letters, and the party has to have a confidence vote in the Prime Minister. If 48 letters go in, this would require a swift vote of confidence, where May must win more than 50 per cemt of the 315 eligible MPs. If she lost, the party then has to elect a new leader. Given the incredibly short timescale before 29th March, the Conservative Party would be signing its own death warrant to do this.
  • Labour tries to table a censure motion about May – this is effectively a personal vote of no confidence in the Prime Minister, which is what happened recently to Chris Grayling. This would potentially allow Tory MPs to vote against the May without bringing down the Government. However the Government is under no obligation to provide time for an Opposition Day before Christmas, so this is unlikely to happen.
  • The Prime Minister goes to negotiate with Brussels and brings back an amended deal. This would then require the Government to win a vote on its renegotiated deal, using the procedure outlined above.
    If no negotiated deal can pass through the Commons the UK will leave the EU without a deal.

My best guess is that if the Government doesn’t pull the vote, then none of the amendments or the main motion will pass. The Government will then be forced to return to Brussels and try and renegotiate, whilst no-confidence motions in the Government or the Prime Minister are unlikely to succeed due to the dire situation the Tory Party would find itself in. What happens next will depend on whether the Prime Minister can remove either the backstop, or insert a time limit on it, in order for the deal to satisfy enough Tory MPs.

List of amendments before the House – Green means likely to be selected by the Speaker for voting, yellow means a reasonable chance of being selected.

Andrew Gimson’s Commons sketch: May cannot sell her compromise and centrist MPs are preparing to take over

Power seems to be seeping away from the ancien regime.

“Life depends on compromise.” So said Theresa May soon after she began her long, dogged, uninspiring defence of her deal.

How despondent her little band of supporters looked. The Chief Whip’s hair seems thinner every time he enters the chamber. Pained sympathy was the dominant expression on their faces.

They admire her unflagging industry and courage, but sense that she is neither eloquent enough nor sufficiently fertile in expedient to win back the supporters who are deserting the Government.

Stuart McDonald, a Scottish Nationalist, remarked that it “feels like the fall of the ancien regime”, and that was indeed how it felt. One had the sensation that power is seeping away from  this administration, and that the votes it lost this afternoon just demonstrated something which had already begun.

The Prime Minister strove to frame the choice facing the House: “This deal, no deal, or the risk of no Brexit.” MPs must support her deal because anything else would without question be worse.

And for a long time she strove to sell the Northern Ireland backstop. Conor Burns (Con, Bournemouth West) rose, remarked that he comes from the Province and as “a Catholic and a Unionist” understands it pretty well, and asked why her view of the backstop is “not shared by those who understand Northern Ireland the best”.

Lady Hermon (North Down), a former Ulster Unionist who now sits as an independent Unionist, sprang to May’s defence,  declaring from a position just behind Nigel Dodds, the parliamentary leader of the Democratic Unionist Party: “The DUP do not speak for the majority in Northern Ireland.”

She turned with spirit on the Labour benches and reproached them: “I’m sorry that people think this is funny. It’s really serious for the people of Northern Ireland.”

It’s really serious for May too. Hermon is alone, but Dodds commands ten votes, which provided her with a majority, and which are no longer at her disposal. “It’s what’s in the legal text that matters,” Dodds said, and it was clear from his white, intransigent expression that as far as the Prime Minister is concerned, the DUP is pretty much a lost cause.

Yvette Cooper (Lab, Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford) told the Prime Minister that “by over-claiming what is in the Political Declaration she is undermining trust”, and asked her to “be straight with the Parliament and the country about the Political Declaration”.

This was damaging, because May did indeed seem to be bending her deal a bit in order to make it look a bit better. She dared not risk the generous candour about its defects shown the previous day by the Attorney General.

And some of us recalled how, as Home Secretary, May walked all over her Labour opponent, who for a time was Cooper.

George Freeman (Con, Mid Norfolk) wondered whether, “as she confronts the inevitable contradictions” of this process, May has “considered a free vote”.

Ah yes, a free vote as used by Edward Heath when he was taking the United Kingdom into the Common Market, so  that Labour rebels led by Roy Jenkins would find it easier to lend him their indispensable support.

Perhaps May can pull off something similar, but one cannot say she looks as formidable as Heath did when he was taking Britain in, for he plainly believed in what he was doing, whereas she just looks as if she is engaged, albeit with the utmost conscientiousness, in a damage limitation exercise.

Two senior Conservative backbenchers, Dominic Grieve and Sir Oliver Letwin, had earlier spoken in favour of an amendment which if May’s deal fails, and by 21st January no agreement has been reached, will enable the majority in the House of Commons which opposes a no deal Brexit to take control and avert that outcome.

In the early stages of a revolution, there are usually some members of the establishment who believe they know how to steady the ship.

Letwin said that in his view, leaving without a deal would be “a catastrophe for our country”, and the aim was to ensure “the right to crystallise and express” the majority in the House against such an option should the need arise.

Hilary Benn (Lab, Leeds Central) rose to express his agreement: “It is essential” – what heartfelt emphasis he gave to the word “essential” – “that the House of Commons has the opportunity to give itself a voice to express a view about what happens next.”

Andrea Leadsom, for the Government, spoke against the Grieve/Letwin amendment, but it was passed by 321 votes to 299. A coalition of centrist MPs is getting ready to take over if May is seen definitively to have failed. It may not have long to wait.