How painfully clear it is what happens next. Theresa May returns from her European travels with some kind of non legally-binding piece of paper saying that the EU would rather not enact the backstop if it can possibly avoid it, and, some time in January we finally have the crushing Commons defeat that we should have had today. Unless, that is, Conservative MPs finally overcome their chronic writers’ block and get their 48 letters to Graham Brady.
It has become a received wisdom that May has somehow bought herself time by delaying the vote on the withdrawal bill – that she has stayed the executioner’s axe. Yet the opposite is true: by delaying the vote she has created the space for a leadership election. Until yesterday there was a powerful argument against triggering a leadership contest, and one which surely lies behind the failure to raise the 48 signatures: that there is no time for a leadership contest. With under four months to go until Britain’s official exit for the EU, it was reasonable to argue, a leadership election would be a fatal distraction. Parliament and the machinery of government need every minute between now and then in order to prepare for Brexit: pass the necessary legislation and effect the required investment in customs procedures and what have you. If Theresa May has been a desperate disappointment as Prime Minister, her removal from Downing Street will have to wait until after Brexit.
By committing herself to wasting the next few weeks, however, May has destroyed this argument. Tory MPs might well reason that if they are going to have to sit around until January for May to complete her futile task of trying to drum up meaningful concessions from the EU and gain the support of backbench MPs she doesn’t even have (DUP opposition is enough to sink her chances of getting her bill through the Commons) then they might as well spend this lost time having a leadership election.
This morning, Michel Barnier has reiterated what we knew already: that the EU will refuse to change even a punctuation mark on the withdrawal agreement, though he might offer some kind of platitudes on the backstop. We have had at least one more letter, from Crispin Blunt. It is hard to imagine that more backbench Tories are not contemplating a few more excruciating weeks of non-achievement at Number 10 and coming to the conclusion that those weeks could be better spent choosing another leader.