The price May is paying for survival is powerlessness

She yesterday achieved the outcome most likely to prop her up – at least for the time being. But Cooper, Letwin and Bercow are waiting in the wings.

Theresa May succeeded yesterday in achieving her aim.  Of the three Brexit outcomes that could have emerged from the EU summit, she has gained the one most likely to meet her core objective – survival as Prime Minister, at least for the moment.  There is not enough time to hold a leadership election before April 12, the deadline now agreed if her deal hasn’t passed the Commons by then.  And there is no sure alternative means of finding a replacement.  A short extension best suits her abiding preoccupation: to hang on.

Of the other two possible outcomes, a long extension would have opened up the time and space for a leadership challenge.  No Deal might have kept her in office for the time being, since the response from her Ministers and Conservative could have been: all hands to the pumps.  But it might not have done – since it would also have created that space and time.  Furthermore, it could have sparked Ministerial resignations, defections to the Independent Group, and a perilous confidence vote.

In a strange kind of way, one can’t help admiring May’s ducking and diving, her evasions, her twists and turns, her deflections, her gnomic silences – the sheer inventiveness and tenacity with which she hangs on. Sometimes, she has threatened no Brexit.  At other times, such as earlier this week, she has threatened No Deal.  On Wednesday, she hurled a bucketful of verbal paraffin over just about every other MP in the House – including her own Parliamentary Party.  Late yesterday, she sought to sponge the oil from their hair and enraged faces, offering words as close to an apology as she is probably capable of speaking.

She has promised that Britain would leave the EU on March 29 over a hundred times.  She has led Tory MPs into the lobbies to vote in principle not to do so.  She has U-turned on a general election in 2017, transition migration, transition extension, putting her deal to the Commons in December, a regulatory border in the Irish Sea: we cannot bear to replicate the list in full.  Her latest about-turn, characteristically implied rather than asserted, is that we may now participate in this spring’s European elections, after all.

So evasive have been her dealings, so profuse her positions, that she was bound sooner or later to stumble across one that would work.  So it proved yesterday.  Like the majority of Conservative MPs, like the National Convention, and like the local Associations which have lined up behind the last, we have always argued that one has to be prepared to walk away from a negotiation to get a result.  The threat of No Deal should always remain on the table.

We believe that May was bluffing when she hinted earlier this week that she was prepared to countenance Britain leaving the EU with No Deal on the date still written into law.  In her elliptical way, she has pushed the idea at pro-Brexit Ministers.  She did the same to EU27 leaders yesterday.  Some of them may not have believed her.  But she seems to have sowed enough doubt to get them collectively to back off.  Emmanuel Macron didn’t veto extension.  (Neither, please note, did Viktor Orban or Matteo Salvini.)

How much more would have been achieved had she played that card at the right time and place – in other words, right at the start of the negotiation!  If Philip Hammond had been moved in the botched 2018 shuffle, as we urged just before it took place.  If a Minister for No Deal had been appointed then (ditto).  If preparations had been ramped up.  That lost chance is a tragedy with a double edge.  For May has not only threatened No Deal late in the day, but is unlikely to be able to do so again.

This is because her tactical win is wrapped in a strategic defeat.  As we write, an extension motion will presumably pass the Commons, perhaps with predominate Labour support.  But her deal is in no position to do so at a third attempt, assuming that the Speaker allows it to be put in the first place.  If it can’t win next week, it won’t be put: that surely is the logic of setting a new deadline, if it doesn’t pass, to April 12.  On paper, the option of No Deal will still exist then.  In practice, it is likely soon to be suffocated.

For with little likelihood of the deal passing; with infuriated Remainers, distrustful Leavers, an alienated Whips Office, and a Chairman of the 1922 Committe who has reportedly told May to go, she is Prime Minister In Name Only.  Yvette Cooper and Oliver Letwin are ready for a third bite of the cherry.  Their bid to take over the negotiation, in effect, failed in January by 23 votes.  A revived push at it from Hilary Benn fell last week by only two. It is very hard to believe that it will not be successful in some form a third time. The motion to revive it is already tabled.

The Speaker will ensure that it gets a fair wind. (His latest commitment to precedent is to revolutionise S024 motions – or so it appears.) The Second Referendum lobby is dropping its pretence of wanting a further vote, and is gradually revealing what has been its real aim all along: revocation.  Letwin/Cooper are more likely to steer MPs towards Customs Union membership and perhaps Single Market membership, too.  The House may not have settled on either by April 12.  But the Commons would then surely vote for another extension.

On second and final thoughts, we apologise for offering certainties, or seeming to.  Anything could happen yet.  Pro-Remain Ministers could quit.  So could Leave Ministers.  The ERG could go on strike, and refuse to vote.  The Whips’ Office could give up any attempt to stop them. Leadership candidates are raising money, announcing teams.  No Deal could somehow slip through the cracks.  But the drift is unmistakable.  May endures.  But the price she is paying for survival is powerlessness.

Mañana – That in a word is the sum of May’s EU summit statement. Here’s a full text.

The Union and the Government have together kicked the can down the road again – this time with a two-pronged plan.

“I have just met with Donald Tusk following the EU Council’s discussion on the UK’s request for the approval of the Strasbourg supplementary documents and for a short extension to the Article 50 process.

Firstly I welcome the Council’s approval of the legally-binding assurances in relation to the Northern Ireland backstop which I negotiated with President Juncker last week.

This should give extra assurance to Parliament that, in the unlikely event the backstop is ever used, it will only be temporary; and that the UK and the EU will begin work immediately to replace the backstop with alternative arrangements by the end of December 2020.

After a lengthy discussion, the council today also agreed, subject to a successful vote next week, that in order to provide time for the UK Parliament to agree and ratify a Brexit deal, the date of our departure will now be extended to 22 May.

If Parliament does not agree a deal next week, the EU Council will extend Article 50 until 12 April. At this point we would either leave with no deal, or put forward an alternative plan.

If this involved a further extension it would mean participation in the European Parliamentary elections.

As I have said previously, I believe strongly that it would be wrong to ask people in the UK to participate in these elections three years after voting to leave the EU.

What the decision today underlines is the importance of the House of Commons passing a Brexit deal next week so that we can bring an end to the uncertainty and leave in a smooth and orderly manner.

Tomorrow morning, I will be returning to the UK and working hard to build support for getting the deal through.

I know MPs on all sides of the debate have passionate views, and I respect those different positions.

Last night I expressed my frustration. I know that MPs are frustrated too. They have difficult jobs to do.

I hope we can all agree, we are now at the moment of decision.

I will make every effort to ensure that we are able to leave with a deal and move our country forward.”

WATCH: U-turn! May offers an apology to MPs. More or less. (After all, her deal needs their votes.)

“I know that MPs are frustrated too…and I am very grateful to all those MPs that I’ve been meeting across the House.”

WATCH: May urges MPs to support her deal and enable a short extension to Article 50

“Brexit is the will of the British people, we need to deliver that.”

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”?

WATCH: The Prime Minister’s chicken game latest. She tries to pile pressure on MPs to back her deal by stirring up voters against them.

She blames “MPs” and “politicians” for the current impasse as though she were not one herself – which of course she is.

Andrew Gimson’s PMQs sketch: May like Cromwell is losing patience with Parliament

The Prime Minister seemed to imply that if MPs will not bend to her will, she is off.

“This House has indulged itself on Europe for too long.” So said Theresa May at Prime Minister’s Questions.

She sounded like Oliver Cromwell dismissing the Rump Parliament: “You have sat too long for any good you have been doing lately.”

Is this high-handed attitude towards the Commons the way to induce it to vote for her deal? Or will the Prime Minister just sound demagogic and dictatorial?

Clement Attlee said referendums were “a device of dictators and demagogues”, a view later quoted with approval by Margaret Thatcher.

Yet May now derives her legitimacy from the referendum result. She says the people who voted No in that referendum “deserve better than this House has given them so far”.

But whose task is it to bring the views of the House into harmony with those of the people as expressed in the referendum?

This is the Prime Minister’s task. She called a general election in order to obtain a House of Commons which would strengthen her hand in the negotiations required to bring about Brexit.

She instead managed to lose the slim majority her predecessor had won in 2015. The voters declined her invitation to turn her into an elected dictator. Her task became harder instead of easier.

And the Conservative Eurosceptics did not today accept her claim to be the true voice of the British people. Peter Bone reminded her that she had said 108 times that Britain will leave the EU on 29th March, and went on: “If you continue to apply for an extension of Article 50 you will be betraying the British people.”

On the other side of the argument, Kenneth Clarke, Oliver Letwin, Ed Miliband and Yvette Cooper were among those who demanded that the Commons be allowed to hold a series of indicative votes, in order to show what kind of deal can command a majority.

The Prime Minister looked isolated. Her accusation that the House has “indulged itself” struck a puritanical note. She, like Cromwell, is in the right, and is fed up with MPs who waste their time arguing about things.

It was almost as if she had given up trying to persuade anyone else, and just wanted to demonstrate to her own satisfaction that she is justified.

The House is perturbed and confused, and looked in no mood to follow May’s lead. It might yet come to the view that the Prime Minister has indulged herself on Europe for too long.

Either you do as I say, or I’m off. That was the self-righteous implication of her remarks, and of her letter today to Donald Tusk. And one wondered how many MPs will treat this as an incentive to do as she says.

“Dear Donald…” – May’s letter requesting a Brexit extension to the end of June

“However, it remains my intention to bring the deal back to the House.”

This is the full text of the Prime Minister’s letter to the President of the European Council.

Dear Donald,

The UK Government’s policy remains to leave the European Union in an orderly manner on the basis of the Withdrawal Agreement and Political Declaration agreed in November, complemented by the Joint Instrument and supplement to the Political Declaration President Juncker and I agreed on 11 March.

You will be aware that before the House of Commons rejected the deal for a second time on 12 March, I warned in a speech in Grimsby that the consequences of failing to endorse the deal were unpredictable and potentially deeply unpalatable. The House of Commons did not vote in favour of the deal. The following day it voted against leaving the EU without a negotiated deal. The day after that it supported a Government motion that proposed a short extension to the Article 50 period if the House supported a meaningful vote before this week’s European Council. The motion also made clear that if this had not happened, a longer extension would oblige the UK to call elections to the European Parliament. I do not believe that it would be in either of our interests for the UK to hold European Parliament elections.

I had intended to bring the vote back to the House of Commons this week. The Speaker of the House of Commons said on Monday that in order for a further meaningful vote to be brought back to the House of Commons, the agreement would have to be ”fundamentally different-not different in terms of wording, but different in terms of substance”. Some Members of Parliament have interpreted that this means a further change to the deal. This position has made it impossible in practice to call a further vote in advance of the European Council. However, it remains my intention to bring the deal back to the House.

In advance of that vote, I would be grateful if the European Council could therefore approve the supplementary documents that President Juncker and I agreed in Strasbourg, putting the Government in a position to bring these agreements to the House and confirming the changes to the Government’s proposition to Parliament. I also intend to bring forward further domestic proposals that confirm my previous commitments to protect our internal market, given the concerns expressed about the backstop. On this basis, and in the light of the outcome of the European Council, I intend to put forward a motion as soon as possible under section 13 of the Withdrawal Act 2018 and make the argument for the orderly withdrawal and strong future partnership the UK economy, its citizens’ security and the continent’s future, demands.

If the motion is passed, I am confident that Parliament will proceed to ratify the deal constructively. But this will clearly not be completed before 29 March 2019. In our legal system, the Government will need to take a Bill through both Houses of Parliament to enact our commitments under the Withdrawal Agreement into domestic law. While we will consult with the Opposition in the usual way to plan the passage of the Bill as quickly and smoothly as possible, the timetable for this is inevitably uncertain at this stage. I am therefore writing to inform the European Council that the UK is seeking an extension to the Article 50 period under Article 50(3) of the Treaty on European Union, including as applied by Article 106a of the Euratom Treaty, until 30 June 2019.
I would be grateful for the opportunity to set out this position to our colleagues on Thursday.

Yours ever,

Theresa May

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.