So one way to read her shelving of the vote is as an act of self-preservation. But it was a desperate one – she is buying only a sliver of time, and at the cost of the last vestiges of her credibility.
Just before she called the vote off, her spokesman was telling journalists it would go ahead. That morning she’d sent trusted cabinet lieutenant Michael Gove on to the BBC to confirm it unequivocally. The staggering chutzpah of her subsequent volte-face was for many the last straw: this was the woman who categorically said she wouldn’t hold an election in 2017, then did so a month later. She set out red lines on Brexit, then crossed them. She refused to release legal advice about her Brexit deal, then – when forced to do so – was shown not to have been entirely straight about its contents.
So even if she somehow hammers out of the poker-faced Europeans a cast-iron commitment that they won’t trap Britain in an endless “backstop” arrangement, it’s unlikely many of her parliamentary colleagues will believe her.
But she’s not regarded as Machiavellian – in fact, something worse. She is seen as obstinate, inflexible and uncalculating – unable to adapt to circumstances, play for advantage or change course. The road to Brexit has been littered with her tactical errors, the worst of which was probably triggering the two-year EU withdrawal process without laying any kind of groundwork.
When changing course becomes unavoidable, she resists it for as long as possible. The flipside of her admirable doggedness is a deplorable mulishness.
Wedded to this weakness, she is also a poor negotiator, communicator and persuader. She robotically repeats her script ad nauseam. She cannot charm her sceptical Conservative colleagues or European counterparts. She would struggle to sell ice cream on a summer’s day.
This is particularly unfortunate, as for all her blinkered obduracy she might be right about one thing: her deal may well be the least bad option for Britain right now.
So if Parliament votes it down, tweaks and all – though nobody knows quite when May is going to bring it back to the House – what are the options?
A change of prime minister would throw a neophyte into the job with just three months to go. Unless Europe cuts him or her a break, the only deal the new PM could realistically achieve would look very much like May’s. The main change would be to put it in the hands of a better salesperson.
An election, meanwhile, would make Britain’s already farcical Brexit look even worse – is now really the moment to put everything on hold for six to eight weeks of distracting internecine warfare, and then throw a completely new government, of either stripe, into the fray? Possibly with the unsolvable parliamentary arithmetic unchanged?
A new Brexit referendum is a distinct possibility, although getting the government on board and agreeing a question and process looks a very tall order.
Some who support another referendum just hope it will break the impasse, but many do so in the hope of reversing the result. Those who oppose it say it’s undemocratic and will increase the sense of disenfranchisement and frustration in Britain’s already brittle, volatile electorate.
But many MPs’ real anxiety is that it will be fought across party lines, with an intensity and febrility that will rip asunder the Tories, and possibly Labour, in a way that can’t be mended. Politicians fear the potential party-political earthquake of a referendum more than the economic tremor of Brexit itself.
A switch to a completely different Brexit is also spoken of – perhaps joining the European Free Trade Association that links Norway and Switzerland to the EU. But this isn’t a panacea, and would entail a long negotiation – both between Britain and the EU, and once again within the shaky, flaky British political establishment. It’s hard to see this as more than wishful thinking.
Finally, there’s the default option: the no-deal Brexit. The one thing Parliament can agree on is that it doesn’t want this, although a hard core of Brexiteers are “flapping their arms for a run at the cliff edge”, as one commentator memorably put it.
The predictions of economic doom may well be overstated, although the outlook for Ireland can’t be good. But perhaps the economic pain will at least be worth it: there will be chaos in parts (and in ports), but eventually there will be a sense of clarity and control that feels missing from May’s deal.
Disruption is a buzzword in the corporate world – maybe it will work for Brexit Britain. The inhabitants of these islands had better hope so; because the way things stand at the moment, they’re going to find out.
Hans van Leeuwin is The Australian Financial Review‘s Europe correspondent.