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Theresa May has kept her job by caving in to the Brexiteers, but her humiliation is complete

The prime minister’s likely request for a useless short extension to Article 50 is motivated by entirely selfish factors

Andrew Grice
Wednesday 20 March 2019 12:16 GMT
Brexit delay will not be approved unless Theresa May gives 'clear and precise' reason, France and Germany warn

When the Labour government headed by James Callaghan went to the International Monetary Fund with a begging bowl in 1976, it was a moment of national humiliation.

As Theresa May sends her letter to the EU today, pleading for an extension to the Article 50 process, it is a similarly humiliating moment for a leader who pledged more than 100 times that the UK would leave on 29 March. For once, even Downing Street admits it’s a crisis. Whatever happened to taking back control?

May is expected to ask for a delay of up to three months. She originally wanted the option of a longer extension but has backed down after a revolt by cabinet Brexiteers, amid threats of resignations and growing speculation that she could be forced out. A weak prime minister is being buffeted, in whichever direction the gale blows: two weeks ago, a threat to resign by four pro-European ministers forced her to rule out a no-deal exit this month.

Now Eurosceptics led by Andrea Leadsom, who want a “managed no deal”, have pushed May in the other direction. The cliff edge will move from March to June.

Having taken a long delay off the table, May will doubtless present the choice as one between her unloved deal and no deal (again). The government, unprepared to crash out this month, will have another three months to get ready (as will the EU). But the Eurosceptic tail is again wagging the dog: only 164 MPs voted for a managed no deal in the Commons last week, with 374 against.

May’s move will make it harder for her to forge a majority for her deal before 29 March; Eurosceptics will have little incentive to vote for it, as their dream of a no-deal departure looms into view again. The prime minister knows that there is no Commons majority for that: MPs voted by 412-202 for an extension, backing a motion acknowledging the possibility of a long delay, which she now appears to be ignoring.

As usual, May has been motivated by two factors – holding her fractious party together and her personal survival. If she had opted for a longer extension of nine months or a year, a combination of cabinet and backbenchers could have conspired to push her out. Many ministers, including some loyalists, now think she is living on borrowed time.

The cabinet is acting as if she has already announced her departure timetable and a Tory leadership contest is underway. Discipline has broken down irrevocably. May’s diatribes about instant leaks from cabinet meetings are, of course, instantly leaked. Leadsom’s “pizza club” of plotters against May is back in business. Significantly, Sajid Javid and Jeremy Hunt joined Leadsom in opposing a long extension on Tuesday.

I wonder what all three could possibly have in common? Well, May herself acknowledged that some of those sitting around the cabinet table are after her job.

A longer extension would make more sense. I can’t see what a three-month one will achieve, other than sparing the Conservatives a drubbing by Nigel Farage’s new Brexit Party, as the UK would have to take part in European parliament elections.

David Lidington, May’s de facto deputy, told the Commons last week that “a short … one-off extension would be downright reckless”, at odds with MPs’ decisions, and would make “a no-deal scenario far more rather than less likely.”

Naturally, May is blaming the constitutional and political crisis on everyone but herself. She told the cabinet that parliament is a “laughing stock” among voters. Then there’s the wicked EU, John Bercow, Tony Blair, anyone you like.

In fact, MPs are doing the right thing in refusing to approve her discredited deal, albeit for different reasons. For pro-EU MPs, it is much worse than the status quo, and certainly not what voters were promised in 2016. For Eurosceptics, it is “Brino” (Brexit in name only). May’s refusal to take sides – she has now postponed her decision again – or to be honest about the hard choices, means there is deadlock in parliament. The crisis is one of her own making. The only unity she has created has been to unite her enemies against her.

Even at this late hour, too many MPs think they can still secure their dream outcome – whether it is no deal, a soft Brexit or Final Say referendum.

The renewed threat of a damaging no-deal exit will surely persuade backbenchers to finally take control of the process. May’s heart is clearly not in the promised indicative votes on other Brexit options, as it could lead to a customs union, Norway-style deal or referendum.

Unless May can change the habits of a lifetime and start to build a consensus, she should make way for someone who can.

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