After weeks of insisting her Brexit deal is the only deal in town, Theresa May acknowledged what had been obvious for some time: she failed to convince enough Tory MPs of her plan’s merits. Faced with certain defeat, the prime minister decided to postpone the parliamentary vote on her deal in an attempt to secure some concessions from Brussels. In return, the prime minister now faces an imminent challenge to her leadership and the country’s future remains the mystery she can’t solve.
Running down the clock
While Theresa May’s stamina recently prompted respect in both friends and foes, it now sparks incomprehension. Very few in Westminster, and possibly even fewer EU leaders, believe she has any real hope of gaining concessions from Brussels, particularly on the withdrawal agreement. May’s whistle-stop tour across the EU capitals yesterday proved that her counterparts on the continent have nothing more to offer her but warm words, sympathy, and “clarifications” on the Irish backstop. Unfortunately for the prime minister, these efforts have done little to change the minds of her own MPs, and certainly not enough to help her win over the Northern Irish DUP, on whom she relies for a Commons majority.
The rationale for the delay lies in hoping MPs will buckle at the prospect of crashing out without a deal and the majority of her Conservative critics, and possibly some Labour MPs, will grit their teeth and back her deal. A tighter timescale may also reduce the chances of other options — such as a much softer Brexit or none at all — coming into play. But the decision also cost the prime minister much of her credibility and proved enough to unite the disorganised Eurosceptic backbenchers in their attempt to oust her.
Leadership challenge part one
After a gruelling day of meetings with EU leaders yesterday, the prime minister returned to Downing Street to unwelcome news. Her MPs have triggered a vote of no confidence in her leadership. If she loses tonight, she will become a caretaker PM while her party chooses her replacement.
Leadership challenge part two
Even if the prime minister wins the vote among her own MPs, she could still face another one from all MPs. If she fails to win those concessions from Brussels, as it looks like she will, and fails to convince MPs to pass the agreement, as it looks like she will as well, opposition parties are likely to try to oust the government themselves to get an early general election.
Leaders can change – the dilemmas won’t
The prime minister can change – the dilemmas won’t. A change of the office-holder – even of the governing party – won’t change the choices available. Each alternative course of action poses painful trade-offs requiring the quick assembly of fragile coalitions. While there may be a majority against May’s deal, and arguably against no-deal Brexit, there’s not yet a majority for anything else. The prime minister – May or not – must be able to find one quickly.