Now, this game of brinkmanship is reaching its climax. This coming Tuesday, after a month’s delay and a great deal of prime ministerial prevarication and procrastination before that, the 639 sitting parliamentarians in Britain’s House of Commons will finally deliver their verdict on May’s painstakingly and painfully negotiated Brexit deal with the EU.
If she wins the vote, Britain goes into a standstill transition period until at least the end of next year – and business breathes a sigh of relief. The mooted economic dislocation is avoided, and London and Brussels can set about negotiating a longer-term trade deal.
But May isn’t going to win. Bookmaker William Hill was on Friday offering odds of 1-7 – that is, an 87.5 per cent chance – that the deal will fail to secure parliamentary approval. BBC researchers estimate she’ll lose the vote by 433 votes to 206, which would set a new British parliamentary record for the largest ever margin of defeat.
When she loses, nobody has any idea what happens next. May seemingly has no strategy other than to run headlong at defeat. And if knocked down, to get up and try again.
“The government’s only plan at this stage is to do everything they can to whittle down the rebellion against Mrs May’s deal,” conservative commentator Mark Wallace wrote on Twitter. “Some threats here, some promises there – it’s evidently working in a few cases thus far, but they haven’t got long in which to win over a lot of people.”
A divided House on a cliff edge
The antipathy to May’s deal is one of only two things on which the parliament agrees. On alternatives to her deal, the Commons is hopelessly divided – some MPs want a second referendum, some want a renegotiation towards a softer Brexit, some want to take their chances with a hard Brexit, and some want an election to perhaps break the deadlock.
If they can’t settle on a way forward, the unavoidable default is to leave without a deal on March 29. But the second thing on which parliament agrees is that they don’t want a no-deal Brexit. And MPs are now trying to pull what levers they can to prevent it, manufacturing parliamentary votes that hamper May from going down that path.
They voted 303 to 296 on Wednesday (AEDT) to curb the government’s tax-raising powers if there is a no-deal Brexit. And on Thursday (AEDT) they voted 308-297 to demand that she rustles up a Brexit ‘Plan B’ by January 21 if her own deal fails – preventing her from continuing to run down the clock towards a no-deal Brexit, in the hope of scaring MPs into backing her deal on the second or third attempt.
The trouble is, parliament faces a Hobson’s choice. Although MPs can vote against a no-deal Brexit as often as they like, if they or May don’t come up with something else then a no-deal Brexit happens anyway. The probability of crashing out with no deal, according to William Hill’s odds, is 73 per cent.
It’s not hard to see why punters feel this way. Most parliamentarians are entrenched in their views, and show little sign of willingness to compromise. And the public is the same. Most polls show ‘Remain’ and ‘Leave’ are still neck and neck, just as they were in the 2016 referendum.
What’s more, at the edges of each camp the passions are highly inflamed. You can see it in the groups of die-hard protesters from each side that are now permanently entrenched outside parliament. It was on display this week when a posse of far-right heavies began monstering pro-EU MPs on the parliament’s doorstep. It was visible in the almost pantomime fury on the floor of parliament on Thursday (AEDT) when the Speaker allowed MPs to vote on forcing May to stump up Plan B.
What parliament does next
To break the impasse and prevent a no-deal outcome, MPs don’t just need to simmer down. They also need to take some serious political risks, and talk to the enemy. And the moment they’ll need to start taking those risks is in the days straight after the big defeat on Tuesday.
May’s hat seems empty of rabbits, so her most likely strategy will be just to go on with the show: look for more concessions from the EU (again), keep preparing for no-deal, and bring her deal back for another try.
This looks like a blind alley, which is why some parliamentarians are starting to talk to each other about finding another way.
The onus is heaviest on the opposition Labour Party. If leader Jeremy Corbyn had a clear and credible alternative to May’s plan, it could quite possibly lure the Tories’ anti-Brexit crew across the floor of the House and carry the day.
But Corbyn is sitting on the fence, for self-interested political reasons. On one side he has the young, the educated, the urban and liberal, who desperately want Labour to support a second referendum that might scupper Brexit altogether. On the other side he has the small-town, left-behind working class, who voted Leave and would quite possibly abandon Labour if it climbed off the fence on the Remain side.
To keep both flanks in line, Corbyn won’t say what his Brexit preference is, except that it’s not May’s deal. He needs the Tories to own Brexit if, or when, the pottery gets broken. And at the moment, he’d still rather use the parliamentary stand-off to try and force another election – which he thinks he could win – rather than help broker a Brexit compromise that could give him a political headache.
The Tories would very likely unite to avoid that election, which means at some point Labour will have to give up on it and make a choice on Brexit. Labour’s Shadow Brexit Secretary Keir Starmer looks to be laying the ground. He’s talking about pushing back the March 29 deadline, and he’s also dog-whistling to anti-Brexit Tories in the seeming hope of luring them into a cross-party push towards a softer Brexit.
But whether parliamentarians on all sides can swallow their partisanship and their passion in the coming few weeks is still very much open to question. Meanwhile, the Brexit cliff edge – however steep it may or may not be – feels ever closer.