Another day, another knock. But Mrs May plows on. Thanks to Yvette Cooper she has been defeated on a Finance Bill (the first PM to lose such a vote in forty years) and thanks to Dominic Grieve she has lost control of the Parliamentary timetable (in part because of procedural mischief from Speaker Bercow). Her strategy is left in tatters. But the Prime Minister still believes there is a way through. Why? Well because she has always got by before.
The implications of her double defeat are real and significant. Cooper’s amendment means that No Deal spending is severely restricted and is no longer in the gift of the Executive. Grieve’s intervention restricts May still further, shortening her ‘time to think’ after the meaningful vote from a month to just three days. This prevents May from simply running down the clock and – worse – gives MPs the opportunity to amend whatever motion she brings. This means that EFTA, Norway and a People’s Vote all might be given the chance to test their Parliamentary popularity. In the game of cat-and-mouse that Brexit has become, the PM is more cornered than ever.
Prime Ministers survive, emotionally, by clinging to a purpose. Some come to office with a mission firmly fixed in their mind’s’ eye, ruthlessly pursuing the agenda on which they were elected. Others retrofit a purpose to their tenure, taking circumstance and remoulding it into destiny. This is what Brexit now is to Mrs May. The perceived unreasonableness and intractability of her opponents has helped to convince the PM that she is where she is to deliver on the referendum result because she – and only she – is able to do so. Her colleagues and her opponents mostly disagree. But this belief animates and sustains her.
May has also learned, from experience, that she can survive what would have been fatal for her predecessors. There is a reason we prohibit drink driving. Alcohol tends to encourage those who imbibe with false-confidence – creating a sense of misplaced invincibility. Being convinced of one’s lack of vulnerability, a drunk driver can find themselves taking risks that they otherwise would not countenance. This has a temporary effect of reinforcement – each time a risk is taken and no consequences are suffered the delusion of invincibility strengthens. Until, of course, something does go wrong. At which point, a crash.
Theresa May has plenty of superficial evidence of her invincibility. She is still Leader of the Conservative Party and of the country. Her vision of Brexit is the only one with legislative time available and the only ready-made alternative to No Deal. She is immune (theoretically and for a year) from internal challenge. She has tripped aplenty but is yet to actually fall.
But the fact of not having fallen does not preclude a future fall and the amendments laid in Parliament this week make May’s eventual crash more likely. She cannot promise to finance the consequences of No Deal and she cannot just waste time exponentially anymore. Further, in the rebellions that enabled those measures to pass, one can see the beginnings of a real Remainer alliance that might yet frustrate Brexit entirely. This is a moment fraught with danger.
Increasingly, May looks likely to reach to her Left rather than her Right to make it across the line. She believes that on Labour’s backbenches there are significant enough numbers of pissed-off MPs who are frightened of their own Brexit constituents and open to a deal. That is why she looks minded to allow an amendment that cements EU rights for workers in British law. And that is why she has sent her Chief Whip to treat with the likes of Gareth Snell and Caroline Flint. It might work, of course, but Tory Eurosceptics warn that a Brexit won with Labour votes – against a significant Conservative rebellion – would split the party. And what will Momentum do to MPs who defy the whip to enable a Tory Brexit? It doesn’t look pretty.
Theresa May operates on the principle that she will get by because she always has before. But she is running out of road. The most likely route to securing her version of Brexit is straight through the heart and soul of her own party. The Commons and its Speaker are against her. And there are less than twelve weeks left. Depending on the scale of her defeat and the manoeuvres that follow, it might be even less than that before the PM is packing her suitcase and taking down her pictures from the Number 10 wall.