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 right-wing fantasy. For two years the Brexiters had spread their dreams under May’s feet, and for two years she had nursed them. Now she trod, hard. They would not after all have global Britain, or Singapore-style deregulation, or bonfires of rights. To compound the injury, she had now even denied them their chance to take revenge. Rarely has pathos been so pathological. May looked as though she would rather be anywhere else, and 117 colleagues wished she was.
Nobody should cry for May, the captain of this national Titanic. She stands exposed, her power hollowed out, but unburdened by self-awareness, perseveres. And yet this is not just her disaster. She may have sold a feast of delusion, but the Tory party eagerly dined on it. In the last few days, her ministers have left no earth unscorched in their desperate attempt to save Brexit and themselves. Michael Gove told outright lies on the Today programme about the EU’s political declaration; Andrea Leadsom impugned the Speaker’s impartiality and blackmailed Brussels with the spectre of no deal if it refused to amend the backstop; and Liam Fox effectively dubbed his own colleagues enemies of the people by suggesting they might “steal” Brexit. History will not spare them.
The only question everyone now asks is the only one no one can answer: what happens next? The deal is surely dead. The government threatens no deal, but even in these upended times, few MPs will seek to inflict open trauma on their constituents. The European Court of Justice has, this week, moreover confirmed it is no longer the default outcome: the UK can unilaterally revoke the Article 50 notification at any moment before it leaves. The court has thus established no deal not as unavoidable calamity but a political choice. Its advocates may no longer hide behind it, so must therefore embrace it. The vast majority of MPs will recoil.
And so we are left with the third of May’s threatened options: no Brexit. First mentioned in her party conference speech and at the time largely unnoticed, the prime minister now waves the spectre of remaining as a transparent means to scare Brexiters into obeying her. They will not. But the genie has fled the bottle and the People’s Vote campaign intends to harness it. In the absence of any viable alternatives, consensus is growing that a referendum may be near. Parliament remains reluctant and MPs fear national division, but we must now accept that Britain will be divided for the rest of our lives. Remaining in the EU would at least preserve British jobs and decision-making while we heal.
At the end of Britain’s most chaotic and tumultuous week since the referendum, the prime minister flounders in dead air, stripped of authority and credibility, unable to listen or lead. She may have won the confidence of her party, but she has won nobody else’s. Indeed, having led the first government to be found in contempt of parliament, May now finds herself in contempt of the people: her intransigence will paralyse the country for weeks, months and perhaps years to come. Brexit’s chaos was predictable and predicted. Now the endgame threatens the preservation not simply of the British government, but of modern Britain. Only one is worth saving.