Well, there we are. This note would usually begin with a knowing and self-regarding pop culture reference that would act as the playful mood music for the analysis that follows. But, honestly, who has the time or the inclination for whimsy at this moment of genuine – if also breathtakingly dull – national crisis? So instead, this note will simply lay out where we are and what our options are.
The Prime Minister has once again failed to secure her Withdrawal Agreement. Its fate was sealed earlier today when her Attorney General (a lawyer first, a politician second) confirmed the obvious – that the United Kingdom had failed to secure a unilateral option to leave the Northern Irish ‘backstop’. Of course, the UK was never going to secure such a get-out. The backstop is an insurance policy. Insurance policies are not worth the paper they are written on if the insurer can cancel the policy as soon as it is needed. Knowing this as she did, Theresa May chose to pretend that such an undertaking would be achievable. She did this, as she does most things, in a desperate attempt to keep the ERG on side. And, as with almost everything that she does, this strategy has not only unravelled but it has unravelled in such a way as to create an even bigger headache than the one it was intended to fix. She encouraged the ERG to make impossible, substantive legal changes to the backstop, their red line. They did so. And now she has met with the consequences of that decision.
So, what happens next? Honestly, anyone who tells you with any certainty that they know is a fraud or a fool or both. But we do know that May’s premiership is now in the most peril it has yet been. Her policy on the biggest (if we are being real about it, presently the only) political challenge facing the UK has been defeated. Twice. By historic majorities. Europe have made it plainly clear that they have gone as far as they will go on the backstop – they cannot sacrifice Ireland, a continuing member, to appease Britain, which is leaving. There is no majority for No Deal, no majority yet for a referendum, not majority in sight for any specific alternative. If Theresa May were a normal Prime Minister she would resign. But whether she is a normal Prime Minister is a question that is very much up for debate.
The UK is now boxed in. We can apply for an extension to Article 50 but the European Council has been clear that it will only approve such an extension if there is a clear purpose to it and if it either runs only until the end of April or we agree to participate in the European elections in May. Vanishingly few political stakeholders here in the UK can countenance taking part in those elections – they worry that it would look both farcical and anti-democratic and that Nigel Farage and Tommy Robinson would be the main beneficiaries. So whilst MPs will probably vote this week to instruct the Government to request an extension, we simply are not in the driving seat when it comes to what the shape and duration of that extension will look like.
And so it may be that the only way through is that suggested by thoughtful Tory grandee Charles Walker – an election. The Conservative Party would run not on May’s deal but on some resurrected ‘Malthouse Compromise’. Labour would be under immense pressure to commit to a referendum in its manifesto. The likelihood is that TIG would be smothered at birth. And whilst a general election does not guarantee a resolution it would – at least – provide a moment of catharsis.
Alternatively, of course, she survives yet again. And we do much the same thing again, voting yet again on the same deal, yet again. Next week, or the week after that, maybe both. Meanwhile the clock runs down and Chris Grayling gets on with his day job of expertly preparing us for the impact of No Deal, which remains the default position. As we say, not a time for whimsy.