The key drawback in life of pledging something undeliverable is that eventually you will be called upon to deliver it. The dreadful truth might wait months or years to appear, but its moment will one day arrive. So it is with the prime minister. As she stood in the Commons on Monday to abort the parliamentary vote and usher in her capital trial, it was possible to detect the vaguest glimmer of recognition beneath the armour of unreality. Theresa May won the confidence vote, but in every meaningful sense lies defeated.
Before May embarked on this week’s supplicatory shuttles to European capitals, she should have noted her own famous mantra: nothing has changed. The EU will not, after all this time, allow this prime minister or any other to eat cake or pick cherries. If Brussels did not cede its key red line on the Irish border over two years of negotiations, it will not suddenly do so now they have concluded. After the referendum, and long before May was terminally weak, the UK handed what few cards it held directly to the EU and conceded each major demand. At the bloc’s moment of maximum leverage, it will not renegotiate. And that means that May’s only deal is, like her political project, finished.
May’s appearance at the European Council summit proceeded as ruthlessly as expected. She arrived asking for something impossible and received the only possible reply. After two years of relentless British exceptionalism, EU leaders have little incentive to help her. They have repeatedly insisted they will not change the backstop; she told parliament she would ask them to change their mind; they did not. For the sake of such unadulterated delusion she delayed parliament’s most significant vote since the Second World War, triggered a party coup, and quite possibly precipitated a Conservative split. This madness has no method. A desperate prime minister in the death throes of her premiership can think of no way to save herself, and her people must simply stand by and watch.
May’s postponement of the vote was cowardly, but in truth her gravest crime was to have ever brought Brexit into material existence. Colleague after colleague rose in parliament to denounce her deal, but her definitive betrayal had come by answering the first clarion call of her premiership. While “Brexit meant Brexit,” it offered a receptacle for every…