Theresa May is stuck with presenting an alternative Brexit to the EU

This is an interative post..

Friday is usually a day of anticlimax in public after the excitements of an EU summit This one is no exception. It leaves three days for the contending forces to prepare their battle plans for the next three weeks. But this week, the Friday truce is less than complete.

The immediate note of anxiety came with the question of whether Mrs May would default to No Deal if MPs fail to approve her deal for a third time. Paul Waugh of HuffPost’s verdict is probably correct.

Both the FT and Guardian picked up fresh signals yesterday that May really is ready to go down the no-deal route (as revealed by HuffPost in February). Still, when asked directly about this last night, she left open the prospect of a longer delay rather than a no-deal. “We need to work with the House to decide how to proceed if we don’t get the deal through,” the PM said. As I pointed out yesterday, May can’t even get a threatened resignation right, and it’s far from clear in Brussels or London if she really would step aside rather than agree a long extension if her deal fails a third time.

This afternoon   came clearer indications that the government will allow indicative votes on Brexit alternatives  to be held on a free vote next week. This appears to reduce further the threat of No Deal and suggests that Mrs May may not be staking her all  on the withdrawal agreement in MV3. If so, this is a momentous shift.  From Guardian Live….

Greg Clark, the business secretary, has insisted that the government will go ahead with the plans for indicative votes in the Commons next week which were promised by David Lidington, the Cabinet Office minister, at the end of last week. Lidington was quite specific, but on Wednesday this week, when Theresa May seemed to rule out a long article 50 extension (which might be necessary if MPs were to opt for a plan B), MPs started to suspect that she would shelve the plan. Asked about indicative votes at PMQs, May sounded distinctly unenthusiastic.

But Clark has told the BBC they will go ahead.

Every minister when they speak at the dispatch box speaks on behalf of the government. The commitment that the government has made seems to me very clear, that the government will provide that. So there’s no reason why the government should be forced to do something that it is committed to do anyway

BUT HOLD EVERYTHING! After Clark spoke..

NB IN BIG LETTERS – govt has not yet made decision about this, it’s not any further forward – but because Clark is one of the ministers who’d like to see this happen formally, it fuels the ‘debate’ – to use a diplomatic phrase ..

to which the hard Brexiteer minister Liz Truss gave this reaction…

Good.

The punchiest comment on last night’s ultimatum from EU leaders comes from  the Guardian’s Rafael Behr.

Does May like this plan? It doesn’t matter. She wasn’t in the room where it happened. The summit conclusions were handed down to the petitioning nation as it paced around an antechamber. This is the power relationship between a “third country” and the EU. Britain had better get used to it. he terms of the extension are not drafted for the prime minister’s benefit. They contain a message from the EU direct to the House of Commons. In crude terms: piss or get off the pot. If you want to leave with a deal, vote for the damned deal. If you are foolish enough to leave without a deal, do not blame us. Have a couple more weeks to think about it. But if you want something else, a referendum or a softer Brexit, work it out soon. And then send someone who isn’t Theresa May to talk to us about it.

Then there is what Laura Kunnesberg poses as May’s dilemma

Within days, MPs will push for a series of votes on different versions of Brexit – the “Norway” model, another referendum, Labour’s version of Brexit with a customs union, the list goes on.

But here’s the dilemma. Does Theresa May just wait for Parliament to do what one minister describes as “grab control of the order paper”?

Or should they instead try to lead the process, forcing what another member of the cabinet described as a “fresh start”, even though it seems “ludicrous” to be resetting the whole process in this way at this stage?

Some in the government believe the best choice is to take charge of this next stage – to lead the process as Parliament and the opposition parties try to find a new compromise. Sounds like a no brainer.

But there is a real hesitation over whether the Labour frontbench are really interested in trying to find a compromise or will, ultimately, be too tempted by the political opportunity of pulling the rug from under the government at the very last minute.

And given that the majority of MPs are, theoretically, in favour of a softer Brexit than the one the prime minister has negotiated, could Theresa May really preside over a process that would end up there?

But if the government sits back and just lets Parliament get on with it, then Number 10 accepts becoming a passenger  entirely in the hands of the MPs whose behaviour the prime minister so reviled in that controversial address in Number 10 on Wednesday night.

Robert Peston has a more dramatic  version of her dilemma

So what happens now?

Well, nobody knows – probably not even God. Because there are too many imponderables.

If the decision were settled just on where the Brexit preferences of MPs probably lie, the UK would probably pivot to the softest Brexit – the so-called Common Market 2.0 – and go for an undetermined but finite further Brexit extension.

But that route probably blows up the Tory Party completely and would also see a lesser haemorrhaging of Labour: the Tories could split right down the middle, between the Brexiter purists of the ERG and the rest.

And for any of this to happen, backbenchers – led by Boles, Cooper, Letwin et al – would in the coming days have to completely take control of the process of shaping and delivering Brexit from Theresa May and the government.

So there we have it. MPs have a weekend to decide whether to initiate civil war against Theresa May and the government and instigate a once-in-a-century reconfiguration of the structure of political parties.

As for whether Theresa May can actually survive as PM more than another few minutes having set up this titanic of all parliament struggles, that seems almost a side issue now.

Her fate will presumably almost be sealed this week, if she loses the vote on her deal, and then completely on 12 April if MPs have decided to opt for a lengthy Brexit extension – since she said unequivocally in the Commons on Wednesday that she was “not prepared to delay Brexit any longer than 30 June”.

But funnily enough, whether she stays or goes seems fairly trivial compared to all the other nation-determining stuff.

Peston poses a genuine issue: how can a cross party group of MPs take control without bidding to form a government? Could they force the present government  to do their bidding if they won a majority for a soft Brexit? Why instead would this necessarily be the cue for general election if neither main party could agree on its own manifesto on Brexit and the Conservatives and perhaps Labour decided they urgently  needed a new leader?. Strange as it may seem this  dilemma strengthen Mrs May’s hand in any fight for her own survival, at least in the short term.

Even so, next week may see Mrs May’s  last hurrah, claims the FT

Theresa May’s leadership is under increasing pressure after a week of shifting Brexit policies, including raising the prospect of a no-deal Brexit on March 29, only to accept an offer from EU leaders that leaves open the chance of an extended delay the UK’s exit. Some Conservative MPs and civil servants believe the UK prime minister will have to resign if she again fails to win parliamentary approval for her withdrawal deal next week. One cabinet minister said: “If she loses the vote next week I can’t see how she could carry on.” A Downing Street official said: “I don’t think parliament is going to vote for any deal . . . It’s like she’s given up inside.”

The Daily Telegraph claims an exclusive which  falls just short of  a notice to quit from the chairman of the Conservative backbenchers.

Sir Graham Brady, the chairman of the 1922 committee of Tory MPs, visited the Prime Minister in Downing Street on Monday afternoon and made clear that a growing number of Tories believe she has to go.

(She) is facing a mounting backlash from both Eurosceptic and Remain ministers amid stark warnings from Cabinet ministers that her Premiership could be over within a week.

The Telegraph can reveal that behind the scenes the Prime Minister has faced a series of direct challenges to her authority over the past fortnight.

Just hours before the second meaningful vote on the Prime Minister’s Brexit deal last week, which she lost by 149 votes, Mrs May was confronted by a group of 15 whips.

One called for her to quit while others openly questioned her leadership and warned her that trust had been lost with the backbenchers. “There was a lot of anger,” a source said.

On Wednesday Eurosceptic Tory MPs confronted the Prime Minister and directly and called for her to quit.  Nigel Evans, executive secretary of the 1922 committee, told the Prime Minister: “It’s not that people don’t believe what you say, it’s that people don’t believe you can deliver.”

Another Tory MP told the Prime Minister at the meeting in her Parliamentary office: “If it goes to the next stage, there is a feeling that you shouldn’t be part of it.”

Last night there were reports that the Prime Minister’s public address on Wednesday had caused a major rift with Julian Smith, her chief whip

However difficult it would be for many to swallow,  her prompt departure is no foregone conclusion. For a start  the ERG’s  attempt to  dislodge her failed last December and can’t be repeated for a year. Even if  pressure from the cabinet and backbenchers became intolerable, there’s a strong reason for her to hang on until at least 22 May, even if her deal is rejected again and another proposal is backed by MPs. It is that her resignation by the cut-off date for a new plan to be put to the EU on 12 April would leave too little time – less than a month –  for a new Conservative leader and PM to emerge even under the party’s fairly brisk procedure.

In 2016 in  a process due to last two months, the first stage was for MPs to vote for two candidates  to present to the wider party for approval. True, the process was complete in just 11 days, when Andrea Leadsom the surviving challenger to Mrs May after the second ballot, withdrew just before the two of them  were due to to go forward to  the wider party vote. But no one could have predicted Leadsom’s withdrawal and so the timetable to 11 April is too tight. The rules are pretty firm. The PM must stay in office until it’s clear who the palace sends for as the successor.

David Shiels of Open Europe poses the pertinent question for the DUP.

…the DUP’s alliance with the European Research Group (ERG), has given them cover to block the Withdrawal Agreement without getting the blame. The party has been having its cake and eating it.

Despite all of this, there are signs that we are now reaching “peak DUP,” and the time is coming for the party to make a decision. If it does not want the only deal on offer, and if No Deal is taken off the table, what will it support instead?

No answer to that but a pretty contemptuous  refusal to heed Mrs May’s pleas  to change tack and support her deal next week, after days and days of talks  with David Lidington in the Cabinet Office after the EU leaders packed up the Strasbourg agreement in legal deal with the withdrawal agreement last night. Not impressed then with David Trimble’s ingenious argument  that the backstop had within it the seeds of its own destruction.

Friday afternoon

From Nigel Dodds who amazingly seemed to have wanted Mrs May to recommend the quasi-No Deal ERG/DUP free trade package to EU leaders last night. There was never the faintest chance of that…

The prime minister missed an opportunity at the EU Council to put forward proposals which could have improved the prospects of an acceptable withdrawal agreement and help unite the country.

That failure is all the more disappointing and inexcusable given the clear divisions and arguments which became evident amongst EU member states when faced with outcomes they don’t like.

As we have always said, negotiations with the EU inevitably go down to the wire and the government has been far too willing to capitulate before securing the necessary changes which would get an agreement through the House of Commons.

The government has consistently settled for inferior compromises when they didn’t need to and when there was, and is, more negotiating with the EU to be done.

Lectures by the prime minister putting the blame on others cannot disguise the responsibility her government bears for the current debacle and the fact that her agreement has been twice overwhelmingly rejected in parliament.

The prime minister has now agreed with the EU to kick the can down the road for another two weeks and humiliatingly revoke her oft-stated pledge that the UK would leave the EU on 29th March.

Nothing has changed as far as the withdrawal agreement is concerned.

Nothing fundamentally turns on the formal ratification of documents which the attorney general has already said do not change the risk of the UK being trapped in the backstop.

The DUP has been very clear throughout that we want a deal which delivers on the referendum result and which works for all parts of the UK and for the EU as well. But it must be a deal that protects the Union.

That remains our abiding principle. We will not accept any deal which poses a long term risk to the constitutional and economic integrity of the United Kingdom.