Here is the measure of Theresa May’s failure last night, according to an observer of her request to EU leaders for “assurances” that UK membership of the EU backstop would be finite and of short duration. They were ready to help. They assumed a process of officials agreeing a text over coming week would start today, to give her the necessary words that would persuade Tory and DUP critics of her deal to ultimately support it. But it was during the course of questioning her that they concluded such a process – such an extension of talks – would be a total waste of time. Why?
Well according to one observer of the conversation between May and the EU27 leaders, “she could not say what would actually deliver a majority in parliament for her”. Why on earth could and should they start talks in the absence of knowing what May actually wants?
The other things she could not give them comfort on were
1. Could Northern Ireland’s DUP MPs, who keep her in power, ever be brought round?
2. When would it be best for the EU to actually provide the assurances she wants?
3. And in the words of one EU leader, wouldn’t it have been better for the PM to build a majority for some version of the Brexit deal BEFORE asking for their help?
This impasse, this debacle, means the PM faces a deeply painful and humiliating choice. She either now has to admit failure to Parliament and ask MPs what kind of Brexit or even no-Brexit they want. This would be to surrender all pretence that she is in charge of the process and somehow restyle herself as head of a government of national unity. And with the clock running down till Brexit day on 29 March, she probably does not have the luxury of waiting till after Christmas to make this pivot of all pivots.
Or she will have to continue with her conceit that the alternative to her Brexit is ONLY a no-deal Brexit and somehow make the best of that – however much she fears that would make millions of people poorer. The stakes could not be higher – for her and us.
Robert Peston is ITV’s Political Editor. This article originally appeared on his Facebook page