LONDON: “Two more heaves,” quipped someone as the scale of the defeat for the prime minister’s Brexit deal emerged. Theresa May had clawed back 40 of the votes she lost in her first defeat. At this rate she will get the numbers in two more attempts.
Listening to Mrs May’s cracked and croaky tones in the immediate aftermath of her defeat by 149 votes, it was hard not to conclude that she had reached roughly the same conclusion, although ideally with only one more attempt.
Hard though it may be to believe, Mrs May looked like a woman whose plan B (or should that be plan C?) still remains plan A.
It is now clear how she intends to get there. Mrs May is going to scare her Brexit hardliners into submission.
The fundamental flaw of Mrs May’s strategy was that she was trying to scare both sides at the same time. As long as her threat was simultaneously no Brexit and no deal, both camps could wait for the other side to blink first.
The reason Mrs May avoided taking sides is obvious. The logic of her position dictated that she seek allies across the house to frighten the hardliners into caving. The logic of the Conservative party meant that this would be taking sides with Labour against a sizeable chunk of her own party.
Now events are forcing her to choose sides, albeit at a glacial pace. Mrs May will feint towards the soft-Brexiters and remainers until such time as her own Tory hardliners crack
EXERCISE IN APPLIED PRESSURE
The rest of this week will be an exercise in applied pressure on those hardliners. On Wednesday and Thursday, as promised, the government will offer MPs the chance to reject a no-deal Brexit and then the chance to seek a delay to the Brexit date of March 29.
By confirming that the first vote will be a free vote for Conservatives, Mrs May has ensured that parliament will vote to reject a no-deal by a significant margin.
The prime minister was coy last night about how she will vote, but the expectation is that she too will vote against no-deal.
That vote remains merely indicative until an alternative plan for Brexit is approved but it will be a powerful demonstration of force for the Brexit ultras. The following day MPs are likely to vote in similar numbers for a delay.
But Mrs May also reminded MPs that none of these steps get MPs off the hook of having to choose a deal they can support. The unstated implication of her words and approach is that these may be followed by indicative votes to allow MPs to direct the future course of Brexit deliberations. None of these steps bode well for hardliners.
To further ratchet up the pressure, the government will publish papers on no-deal tariffs and arrangements for the Northern Ireland border. None will be pretty.
HARDLINERS ARE STARTING TO CRACK
There is logic to this. In spite of her second thumping defeat it is clear that the hardliners’ nerve is beginning to crack. There was a moment where Mrs May might have thought her late-night dash to Strasbourg had done the job.
And then came the attorney-general Geoffrey Cox’s advice that the extra measures around the Irish backstop did not fundamentally alter the legal position that the UK could be trapped indefinitely inside a customs union. While his advice was nuanced, that line blew away the cover the hardliners needed to climb down.
This time the ERG support merely frayed; next time, who knows. They know that once the other side coalesce around an alternative soft-Brexit plan or referendum the momentum may prove unstoppable.
The problem for Mrs May, too, is that events might now run away from her; once the Commons seizes control of the process, she may struggle to reclaim it. But this is what her Brexiters know as well.
All Brexit outcomes remain possible: No-deal, a referendum, a softer Brexit. A delay now looks certain.
But listening to Mrs May in her second humiliation, it has to be said that one last heave for her deal is also still in the mix. For Mrs May at least, even after a second total humiliation, it seems there really is no alternative.