Few Prime Ministers can have come to the House in more humiliating circumstances than Theresa May did today. In her statement, May acknowledged that she was pulling the vote as she would have lost it by a significant margin if it had gone ahead. But in that odd way of hers, May then delivered her best defence of her deal as she was saying that she would head back to Brussels to try and change it.
However, it is worth noting that May does not seem to be seeking a change to the withdrawal agreement itself. In response to a question from Iain Duncan Smith, she warned that reopening the withdrawal agreement would lead to more demands from other EU member states. She told Sir Oliver Heald, a supportive Tory backbencher, that she was seeking further clarification about the temporary nature of the backstop. But Nigel Dodds made clear that only changes to the legally binding, withdrawal agreement would do it for the DUP.
May pulled this vote because she would lose it. I suspect that Number 10 are relying on the clock as much as the clarifications to help them get something over the line. By January, when most Ministers expect May to bring this back, there’ll be that much less time left to either try and renegotiate the deal or prepare for no deal. This squeeze on time may well help May a bit. But given the scale of the opposition to her deal, it seems unlikely that clarifications and a ticking clock alone will be enough to get this deal over the line.
In a sign of the pressure May will come under to shift position, five Cabinet Ministers backed an ‘indicative vote’ on this morning’s conference call. This would, essentially, allow the Commons to say what it would support when it comes to Brexit. Once that had been made clear, the government would come under huge pressure to do what the House wanted it to.
Interestingly, other Ministers on the call thought that it was clear that the five ministers who raised the prospect of an indicative vote had coordinated—and that this was part of a push towards a softer Brexit.