Is she chickening out on Brexit? Or playing chicken with Commons and Party over her deal? Or merely a headless chicken herself – bent on daily survival?
What now is Theresa May’s plan, this morning after the day before? The simplest explanations are often the most convincing. In her case, this is: she no longer has one. Her ambitions for country, party and self have shrunk to seeing each day out. The most primal of human instincts has taken over, more urgent even than the drives to sex and food: simply to survive. Clinging to office fills her horizon. She shuffles on into a void. The will to power has left her a ghost. Perhaps that is all that can be said.
But there are two other potential answers, assuming that she is not brooding on a general election or preparing to resign – a move that would be out of character for a woman who appears to equate being Prime Minister, whatever the circumstances, with doing her duty. These explanations are worth probing because, with the future of country, Party and Brexit at stake, Conservative MPs, activists and others must work every faculty to read the signs of the times accurately, and then act promptly.
The first is that she has already decided to postpone Brexit, seek a second referendum, or both. This take has it that she knows very well that her deal will not be substantially improved by the EU; that it therefore cannot pass through Parliament; that the Remain-friendly Commons will shortly bid for control of its proceedings and timetable – and that she will then, a confidence vote from her Parliamentary Party notwithstanding, give way. No deal is better than a bad deal has been supplanted by any deal is better than no deal.
Like an empty boat being pushed by the tide, she will drift along with the five-sixths or so of MPs who see a no deal Brexit as the ultimate political evil. Perhaps the Commons will somehow pull for Norway Plus instead; more likely, it won’t. It was worth watching which Cabinet heads nodded on her own front bench yesterday when she reiterated the Government’s present stance on a second referendum – and which didn’t. Greg Clark’s didn’t so much as twitch. David Lidington and David Gauke are also reported to be ready for a U-turn.
As for that policy – opposition to another referendum – how sure is it? Indeed, what faith can we place in any commitment that May makes on Brexit, or indeed on anything else? She promised that she wouldn’t call an election last year; that her Brexit policy would be based on “a comprehensive system of mutual recognition”; that migration would be controlled during transition; that transition wouldn’t be extended; that she would oppose new regulatory barriers in the Irish sea. Ministers were told last year that the backstop had no legal effect.
Politics is a rough old trade, and bending the truth is, as elsewhere in life, part of it. But even by the standards of Westminster, the Prime Minister’s breaches are brazen. Leave aside as debatable those manifesto commitments on the Customs Union, the ECJ and the Single Market, and look at the events of recent days. May said that the EU would not offer us a better deal if the present draft is rejected. Now she suggests that it can be improved after all, not ruling out changes to the Withdrawal Agreement itself yesterday.
Stephen Barclay and Gove were sent out – the latter only yesterday morning – to assure the public that the meaningful vote would go ahead. As late as 11am, the Prime Minister’s spokesman was insisting that this was so, even as Cabinet Ministers were briefing that it wasn’t. Small details like these have big consequences. Near the core of May’s problem in selling her deal to MPs is that too many of them have simply lost trust in her. Some no longer believe assurances even when they are accurate – say, on future divergence.
The second interpretation of the Prime Minister’s thinking is completely different. We advance it with some hesitation, because it may represent less a scheme crafted deliberately than one stumbled upon by accident. The sum of her statement yesterday was that the meaningful vote is postponed. She gave no indication whatsoever of when it will be brought back. In reply to Justine Greening, she suggested that the Government is obliged to hold it by January 21. Later that day, that was flatly contradicted by the Commons authorities.
Under their interpretation, May’s real deadline is March 28, since the Commons must ratify any amended deal reached with the EU no later than that date. This could open up an opportunity for the Prime Minister to play a risky game of chicken with our EU interlocuters, the Commons and the Party. For the later the meaningful vote takes place, the more sharply a no deal Brexit will loom. This might open up an option for her: don’t rush for a settlement pre-Christmas, but spin out the talks instead – thus ramping up pressure on MPs.
It is possible to think May now believes that, under that pressure, the EU will fold next year, and offer a time limit or a unilateral exit from the backstop. Or that she is concluding the Commons would collapse, even if the EU did not – that, with March 28 and no deal immiment, Labour would buckle and abstain, together with other opposition parties. Or that even if Jeremy Corbyn did not, some Labour MPs would. Meanwhile, Conservative opponents could be steered into the abstention column, and Tory abstainers into the aye lobby.
Now, this scenario makes many assumptions: that the Prime Minister will still be in place; that there is no Cabinet revolt; that the Commons has not, by the New Year, wrested control from the Government altogether; that MPs do not (if May seeks to spin out her dealings with the EU) revolt, propose the postponement of Article 50 and perhaps a second referendum, and then see her back down; that the Prime Minister has not been censured, or the Government no confidenced.
But one can also see how the truth could be found here – that May is not so much a headless chicken herself, or seeking to chicken out of Brexit but, rather, now sees before her this game of chicken unfolding as next year unfolds. It would have one immeasurable plus from her point of view. It would if successful be a win. Her deal would have triumphed. She would have crushed her internal opponents – hard Brexiteers, Norwegians, second referendum supporters: the lot. The stage would be set for her to go on and on and on towards 2022.
So, back to the present. The wolf has cried 48 letters many times. It may be that, unlike the animal in the fable, it never comes: that waiting for those letters is like waiting for Godot. The next 24 hours or so may represent the last chance before the New Year for Tory MPs to act. Some may do so, convinced that the Prime Minister is beyond rescue. Others may waver still, terrified of the effect of a leadership challenge on what’s left of the negotiation, or unconvinced by May’s potential replacements.
Our bottom line is that the referendum result must be delivered. If pro-Brexit MPs believe May is now set on a chicken game, they may stay their hand. If they conclude that she is set on abandoning Brexit, they won’t and shouldn’t. On Sunday, we recommended that Tory MPs should send in letters if no substantial change to the backstop emerges this week. Perhaps the most reliable guide should be what could be called the Greg Hands test – namely, to send in those letters if real preparations for no deal aren’t announced before the weekend.