MP’s have twice told Theresa May her EU departure deal stinks. But she’s buffing it up for one last go next week. And she could still get lucky. But if she doesn’t, the Brexit agony looks set to go on for years. And, as our Political Correspondent Peter Spencer reports, it could take her with it.
Picture a team of surgeons performing a delicate operation. One false move could have serious consequences, and there’s a lot of tricky choices along the way.
Now imagine at each dilemma they all troop out and spend fifteen minutes voting on it. Jockeying for position and unsure even who’s supposed to be in charge.
It wouldn’t work in the hospital and it isn’t working in Westminster.
What’s been happening feels like the Tower of Babel. With no one communicating with anyone, the cockup really is of biblical proportions.
A brief recap. In January parliament blew Theresa May’s long-fought-over Brexit deal the mother of all raspberries, voting it down by 230 votes. When she gave it another go last week that defeat was whittled down to 149 votes.
Progress? Er, up to a point, Lord Copper. It was still the fourth largest defeat ever for any British Prime Minister.
So, having insisted around one hundred times Britain will leave the European Union at the end of this month, she was forced to admit that perhaps we won’t after all.
The question is, if not then, when?
Through the croaking of her abysmally sore throat, you could just about make out what her game is.
Back my deal in the next few days and it’ll all be over in June. Don’t and the delay could last years. Possibly forever.
For sure it’s blackmail. And for sure some are wavering. But enough to tip the balance? God knows.
Parliamentary procedures are not helping, as is obvious to anyone who’s been watching coverage in recent days.
The Brexit Secretary voting against Mrs May’s call for a delay minutes after speaking in favour of it says it all about the knots they’re tying themselves in. It was like a Chancellor flushing his own budget down the bog.
No point even trying to explain what it was about. Suffice it to say parliament has shown itself in the digital age to be not even making it to analogue.
Somehow or other we bumbled through when we controlled a quarter of the planet’s population. Now it looks like we can’t even govern ourselves.
The extent of the constitutional crisis cannot be overstated.
Collective cabinet responsibility, an essential tool for any effective administration, has gone by the board. And the Labour opposition is every bit as shambolic.
Ordinary MP’s in both main parties are openly defying their leaders, with plenty on the Tory side punting on May being out within weeks.
It’s worth remembering she got the job on the basis she’d deliver Brexit. Then, after starting the countdown too quickly, she lost her parliamentary majority in an election she didn’t need to hold.
And in the days before everyone went stark staring bonkers a Prime Minister losing a vote on a flagship policy, even by a narrow margin, was in trouble.
Now, to coin a phrase, it looks like she’s in office but not in power.
Little wonder the Europeans, who have the final say on whether we can delay Brexit, are losing patience with us. The uncertainty that’s giving such grief to British companies isn’t doing much for businesses across the Channel either.
Besides, if they look like they’re being too nice to us it might give Eurosceptic parties in other countries ideas too.
On top of that, they’re as baffled by what the hell’s going on as our lot.
Take the small matter of Britain crashing out in less than a fortnight without any kind of deal, with what practically everyone agrees could have disastrous consequences.
MP’s have voted three times now against it. But as part of the original Brexit legislation, it is still technically the law, passed by parliament. Er …
Unfair to suggest the place is a bit creaky though. In many ways it’s very progressive.
For example it banned smoking as far back as 1694. And to this day it has snuff on offer for any member who fancies a sniff. That surely is so behind the curve it’s in front of it.
However, no deal does look realistically like it’s off the table.
A second referendum seems increasingly unlikely too, at least at this stage.
But a softer Brexit? Of the type Jeremy Corbyn is pushing? That’s still kicking around.
Everything now hinges on May’s third big push in the coming days. If enough Tory Eurosceptics and Ulster MP’s on whose vote her government relies get spooked by the thought of a long delay to give her deal the thumbs up she might, just, pull through.
If not, the likely two-year breathing space before we go opens up every conceivable possibility.
Then again, the Speaker could just rule that Mrs May can’t have her third vote anyway as what she’s offering is too much like what MP’s have already ruled out.
Yup, he could do that. It’s buried somewhere in the ancient parliamentary rulebook.
The scenes in the chamber if he did that hardly bear thinking about. Anarchy in the UK? The Sex Pistols were ahead of their time.
Peter Spencer has 40 years experience as a Political Correspondent in Westminster, working with London Broadcasting and Sky News. For more of his fascinating musings on the turbulent political landscape, follow him on Facebook & Twitter.
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