Coronation (headless) chicken

May should go in mid-April. But attempts to appoint a successor uncontested will only stir further chaos in the hen coop.

  • On April 12, Britain is due to move out of a short extension either into No Deal (which is unlikely) or a long extension (which is likely).  In the latter event, Theresa May should stand down on that date as Conservative leader, but stay on temporarily as Prime Minister.  This would allow the Party to hold a leadership election with both Parliamentary and membership stages, which would be impracticable before mid-April.  The new leader would then succeed May as Prime Minister in, say, mid-June.
  • If May gives such a commitment to her Cabinet on Monday, and makes it public later that day, her deal stands a better chance of being approved by the Commons this week.  But endorsement would still be far from certain.  Such a pledge might not persuade the DUP to back it.  And even if it did, the “Spartans” will hold out.  If Opposition MPs hold fast too, the agreement will still go down.  Whatever you view of the deal, this is worth bearing in mind.
  • Now suppose that May instead agrees to quit immediately.  Today’s papers are full of the names of potential successors as Prime Minister, including David Lidington, Michael Gove and Jeremy Hunt.  How would a handover work?  Is it suggested that May stay as Party leader until after a post-April 12 leadership election – thereby allowing a replacement, temporary Prime Minister to serve until that contest produced a new leader, presumably at some point in early-to-mid June?
  • If so, would a new Prime Minister be prepared to take office under that constraint?  Is Hunt, Gove, Lidington or anyone else really prepared to serve in office for less than twelve weeks?  If not, is it proposed that the person who might lead the Party into the next election is selected unopposed?  We name 19 potential leadership contenders in our regularly monthly Next Tory Leader survey question.  There are doubtless others.  Is it seriously suggested that all but one would be prepared to stand aside?
  • Next, Conservative MPs.  Would they, too, be able to rally round one person?  Consider the names most in the frame.  Lidington would be unacceptable to most hard Brexiteers.  Boris Johnson unacceptable to many softer ones.  Gove and Hunt would be in danger of falling between two stools.  Too pro-hard Brexit; too pro-Soft Brexit; pro-Remain; unpopular with members; unpopular with voters; too tained, too fresh – the objections to any aspirant are legion.  What is meant to bring clarity would breed confusion.
  • Next, Party members.  May was elected unopposed after Andrea Leadsom’s withdrawal from the last contest (in effect).  Her leadership is not ending well.  Why should activists want to see her successor appointed – “crowned”, as Tory MPs like to say – rather than elected after a proper contest?  If it didn’t work out last time, why would it do so this time?  Would such an outcome even be legal under the terms of the Party’s constitution?  Above all: what difference to Brexit policy would this new leader make?
  • Next, the Palace.  Monarchs like coronations – but why should the Queen assent to this one?  She might well say to a departing May: “Now, look here.  You tell me that your Parliamentary Party will accept Mr Lidington as your successor.  But I read gather that some Tory MPs will not support him.  Why shouldn’t I send for Jeremy Corbyn instead?”  The Queen has steered clear of party political controversy for the length of her distinguished reign.  Why should she now be dumped right in the midst of one?
  • Finally, May herself.  What if she simply refuses to go? She cannot be challenged in a leadership ballot until the autumn.  Both the 1922 Committee and the whips have pointed her towards the door.  As we write, she is declining to walk towards it.  If her Cabinet unanimously advises her to quit – and we’ll believe that when we see it – she might be left with no alternative.  But until or unless that happens (or Philip May steps in), she will be hard to winkle out.
  • This site is not set on keeping May in office.  We urged change during December’s leadership challenge.  As we say, we want her to pledge to quit as Party leader, and to depart on April 12 – paving the way for a full leadership contest.  Conservative MPs have had enough of her, too.  No group or faction trusts her.  She has lost the confidence of her Cabinet and whips.  Her disastrously misconceived attack on her own MPs appears to have sealed her fate.
  • None the less, our message to them this morning is: be careful what you wish for.  A post-April 12 Prime Ministerial departure works.  A pre-April 12 one doesn’t.  The Conservative Party is like a man stuck in a swamp.  If he keeps his head, he can work his way out of it.  If he loses it, he will be sucked into the depths.  Lidington Now, Gove Now, Hunt Now, Anyone Now – to attempt anything like this is to flail and thrash about. It will only drag the Government deeper into the swamp which threatens to drown it.

Would the EU abandon Varadkar? Perhaps. But it’s not at all likely.

The divisions and impatience exposed could well be real, but it doesn’t follow that Brussels is about to suddenly shift its policy.

Throughout Brexit, there have been two apparently fixed points on the EU side of the negotiations. The first was their remarkable cohesion, in the face of a deeply divided British political class, and the second was their solidarity with Dublin.

As this Government’s efforts to negotiate Brexit reach their apparent nadir, it is worth paying attention to the other side of the table and noting that something appears to have shifted this week, at least with regards to the former point.

The apparent willingness of certain EU leaders to go for ‘no deal’, rather than endlessly indulging Parliament with a series of extensions in which it can continue to vote down the Withdrawal Agreement, seems to contradict the Union’s policy of catering to the particular needs of the Republic of Ireland.

Whilst the EU is perfectly willing to roll out the high-minded rhetoric about the vital importance of an invisible border whilst attempting to persuade the UK to adopt the backstop, it seems improbable that they would content to allow unregulated goods to flood into the Single Market through Northern Ireland in the event of no-deal.

On top of the serious economic consequences, this is one of the reasons that Leo Varadkar’s government has good reason to be deeply worried by the prospect – hence our Editor floating the ‘Varadkar Test‘ as a gauge of Theresa May’s real willingness to pursue such a course.

By apparently hardening their attitude towards one, then, leaders such as Emmanuel Macron seem on the surface to be abandoning their commitments to Dublin’s interests. Which is a very good reason to think it might be a bluff, of course, but if it is a bluff it has been deeply unhelpful for a Prime Minister who needed Brexiteer MPs to think that a no-deal exit had been taken off the table to win them round to her Withdrawal Agreement.

Could it be the case that they are simply running out of patience with the whole process, and losing their cohesion as a result?

The fact that Angela Merkel appears to have had to rebuke both Macron and Donald Tusk, and emphasise in strong terms that a no-deal Brexit must be avoided, certainly suggests so. And there is no doubt that there is genuine concern about whether or not the UK takes part in the next European elections, a decision which must be made soon and which could impose tight legal limits on any deferment.

But it is a long way from there to thinking that Brussels really will abandon its previous priorities, especially against the wishes of the German Chancellor, and facilitate no deal. It still seems more likely that, for now at least, EU leaders will if pressed swallow their frustrations and grant a long extension – almost certainly with strings attached – if the British Government seeks one.

If that is the case, this rare crack in the united front could possibly not have come at a worse moment for May. Just when some of them felt she had the ‘gun to their heads‘, Macron has muddied the waters.

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.

Would May really be prepared to attempt No Deal? We offer you the Varadkar Test.

If he starts ringing alarm bells over the next few days, the possibility may be real. If he doesn’t – or only goes through the motions – then it probably isn’t.

Insofar as Theresa May now has a coherent Brexit strategy at all, it seems to be to attempt to pass her deal next week with opposition votes, assuming the Speaker lets it return for a third “meaningful vote”.  This means presenting the choice before the Commons as her deal or No Deal.  But would she really be prepared to deliver the latter, or try to?

(Her means would presumably be to reject any long extension offer if her deal was defeated – if her fellow Ministers and Parliament would let her, which is another story.)

This site has a simple test. A No Deal Brexit would cause severe problems for Ireland and, sooner or later, deliver the very hard border that its government has worked to avoid.

So if Leo Varadkar and his fellow Ministers sound alarm bells soon, it will mean that they believe that the Prime Minister is set on No Deal.  If there is radio silence, then they think she will accept a long extension and, in the event of her deal going down for a third time, put a statutory instrument to the Commons which would remove the March 29 date from the EU Withdrawal Act.

It is of course possible that Varadkar and company may call it wrong – for example, by ringing those bells only to find that May eventually accepts a long extension after all.  But it strikes us that the Varadkar Test isn’t a bad one.  After all, he seems to know more about what the Prime Minister will do than members of her own Parliamentary Party.

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”?

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.

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.

Why – resentfully – I would vote for the Prime Minister’s deal

Like it or not, the choice has shifted away from ‘Deal or No Deal’ towards ‘Deal or No Brexit’. It’s better to fight against a bad deal outside the EU than to Remain.

This article was originally published in today’s edition of the i paper.

I deeply dislike Theresa May’s Withdrawal Agreement. It doesn’t fulfil her promises, it doesn’t maximise the opportunities of Brexit, and it doesn’t fully free our country from the undemocratic EU. On her own terms, it is a bad deal.

But we have reached a point at which MPs ought to vote for it. The value of the proposal has not improved – no legalese figleaf or empty verbal assurance makes it any better. Rather, the alternative to it has changed.

The negotiating logic that No Deal is better than a bad deal still stands. I would support a No Deal Brexit if one was on offer, as we were promised. But it no longer is.

Exit without a deal on 29 March remains the legal default. The rules and conventions of our democracy – as well as May’s very clear promise – should make that almost impossible to change. But politicians accustomed to getting their way have decided to get what they want at any cost.

The Speaker disgraces his office by ignoring his responsibility to be impartial. The House of Lords overreaches its constitutional role to meddle in the purpose of legislation. Cabinet ministers abandon collective responsibility. All these are outrageous offences: powerful people prioritising their desires above the rules and reputation of our democracy.

But while it is disgraceful, it has still happened. Despite the severe cost to Parliament, enough politicians have behaved dishonourably that they are about to get what they want. The choice facing us – for now, at least – has changed from “deal or no deal” to “deal or no Brexit”.

All the high-minded principles they cited – accountability, compromise, deeper scrutiny of the terms of exit – were a lie in the service of Remain. The latest falsehood is that a delay without a deal is simply time to work on the details. It isn’t, it’s a deliberate effort to try to obstruct the very possibility of fulfilling the referendum result.

That presents Eurosceptics with a choice – the same choice we faced through four decades of campaigning for democratic self-government. We can be pure, regardless of circumstance, and lose, hoping to warm ourselves in defeat with the cold comfort that we went down fighting. Or we can be pragmatic, take what limited victory is available, and fight on for the eventual goal.

The temptation to go out in a self-indulgent blaze of glory is strong. But this is a test of principle. Is our cause truly about escaping the EU, as we say, or is it about imagining a heroic myth about ourselves? Do we want to win, or spend our lives moaning about how we could have won?

I wish we were leaving the EU properly and promptly. I wish politicians kept their promises. But we must deal with what is real.

Though I would like to be able to hang up my sword, 13 years after co-founding the Better Off Out campaign with the support of just one MP, that evidently will not be allowed. Forced to choose between fighting to get us out of a bad deal, but from outside the EU, or restarting the 40-year battle to leave from scratch, I opt for the former.

After the shameful performance of so many MPs, I expect that if we stay in they will do stop at nothing to lock us in forever. The cost – economic and democratic – would be vast.

Some people will be aggrieved by my choice. I feel that way about having to make it. Eurosceptics should exact a price for being forced into such a corner.

Those who made this happen – the Prime Minister, as well as those Cabinet ministers and MPs who promised one thing then did another – should be turfed out. The Speakership should be given to someone who values it. Eurosceptics must harshly scrutinise our own errors which allowed us to be outmanoeuvred.

And the campaign to escape the deal should begin on day one.

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.