Politics 10 December 2018 | 16:33

Brexit Deal-Watch 11: Suspended animation

10 December 2018 16:33

‘Does this House want to deliver Brexit?’ This, at least, is the right question, and was the hard kernel at the core of Theresa May’s abjectly pulpy statement announcing the postponement of the ‘meaningful vote’ on her 585-page proposed deal with Brussels.

Though there was much speculation over the weekend that such a delay was inevitable – given the certainty that the Commons would have rejected the deal in the scheduled vote tomorrow evening – the announcement is still a huge embarrassment for May and her zombie administration.

On this morning’s Today programme, Michael Gove was emphatic that the PM was sticking to her timetable – a timetable that was to be torn up only a few hours later. John Bercow, the Speaker of the House, made clear his profound displeasure that, after a debate on the withdrawal agreement to which 164 MPs had already contributed, it was ‘deeply discourteous’ of the Government to cancel the vote so abruptly. What little authority that May has managed to preserve in the difficult months since last year’s general election now lies in tatters.

She now faces the humiliation of seeking fresh ‘reassurances’ from the EU over the hugely-contentious ‘backstop’ proposal: the mechanism that would keep the entire UK in the Customs Union while the future of the Irish border is resolved. Perhaps Brussels will throw her a few crumbs later this week, but they will certainly not be enough to satisfy the hard-line Brexiteers for whom the backstop and the continuing jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice are utterly toxic. Her position as Prime Minister and leader of the Conservative Party hangs by a thread. The contest to replace her is already up and running.

Still, she is not the only one facing a moment of reckoning. The Commons resembled a shambolic Babel this afternoon, conspicuously incapable of achieving agreement on the shape, character and detail of Brexit. Labour’s proposals for Brexit are a feeble brew of bombast and dither. There is no majority for the so-called ‘Norway Plus’ or ‘Canada Plus Plus’ options. Dominic Grieve’s amendment enabling the Commons to alter any new Brexit proposal put forward by ministers has ensured that MPs now have the means to prevent the disaster of a ‘no-deal’ exit. But if not that, then what?

More than many of her Cabinet colleagues, May has grasped for several months – since her party’s conference, and perhaps before – that the likelihood of a people’s vote grows appreciably with every such fiasco and the growing evidence that the Commons has reached absolute gridlock.

Those who champion a fresh referendum, she said, should ‘be honest that this risks dividing the country again’. Well, as someone who has argued for a people’s vote, I can only say that, from where I sit, the country looks pretty divided already.

‘She looks very weak,’ said Dennis Skinner, ‘and she is’. True enough. May is, of course, playing chicken with MPs and Brussels alike – the last resort of the desperate. She evidently believes that her nerve is greater than theirs, and that they will yield first. Her reasons for thinking this are opaque. And the edge of the cliff, down which the losers will tumble, is starting to look awfully close.