At the eleventh hour, Theresa May has managed to stave off a flurry of ministerial resignations, not to mention dodge what would have almost certainly been another humiliating defeat in the Commons, all without provoking an open revolt amongst her mutinous backbenchers.
Admittedly, she had precious few other options available to her, with her Cabinet trio (now dubbed the Gaukeward Squad) effectively strong-arming her into making the decision. Today’s statement was peak May brinkmanship. Her adversaries placated for now, No 10 have won themselves a bit more breathing space.
It will, however, be short-lived.
This is, after all, just another can kicking exercise, and a brazen one at that, so much so that the Prime Minister was uncharacteristically candid about the coming months. All today’s announcement does is delay a potential no-deal Brexit from 29 March to 30 June, throwing in a dash of uncertainty and chaos for good measure. Other than the timescales, nothing has changed: we either leave with a deal next month; leave without a deal next month; or do either at a later date. In case you were wondering, Brexit still means Brexit.
Repeatedly, Theresa May’s justification for delaying the meaningful vote has been to secure changes to the withdrawal agreement, and in particular, the clauses concerning the Northern Ireland backstop, with the aim of garnering the support needed to get a deal over the line in a Commons vote. With the clock ticking, the deal was beginning to look slightly less unpalatable to those who had previously turned their nose up at it, and the PM’s team knew it. Indeed, rightly or wrongly, time, or more precisely, a lack of it, was her trump card in cooing wavering Tory backbenchers.
But by allowing MPs to rule a no-deal out the day after Parliament’s second stab at the meaningful vote takes place, she removes all incentive to support the agreement in the first place. The timing is an own goal for May, and will arguably only reduce the already slim chance the deal had of being passed on 12 March. It would have been far better – for Theresa May’s reputation; to move the negotiations forward; and to maintain some goodwill with parliamentarians – if she had kept to the original meaningful vote timetable. Instead, she has delayed, prevaricated, and then delayed again, all to mollify the braying ERG, some of whom were never going to vote for the deal. The end result has ultimately been the same: stalemate, albeit with less time to now find a solution.
If anything, today’s announcement could well lead to a harder Brexit. The Prime Minister has been obstinate in keeping to her self-imposed red lines, and few Tory Europhile MPs hold any hope of a softer Brexit than is currently on the table. A shift the other way is, however, possible, and the ERG has been gifted three months grace to convince her accordingly.
Given ministers were getting fidgety in December about the prospect of navigating a mountain of contentious Brexit related legislation through Parliament before B-day (which they must if they are to ensure, as far as it is possible to do so, a smooth and ordered departure), it had become a matter of when, not if, this inevitable postponement would be announced.
But by letting the Brexit boil fester for three months longer, the situation could quite conceivably just get worse. We have simply deferred today’s problem to tomorrow. Once there, we may rue today’s almighty kick of the can.