The Prime Minister does have a strategy to prevent what she sees as the chaos of a no-deal Brexit. The flaw in it is that the strategy probably has a shelf life of just over one week. Because her strategy is to persuade MPs to back her version of leaving the EU in a vote on 15 or 16 January, and in the words of one of her senior ministers:
“I will be shot for telling you this but we are going to lose that vote”.
So what then? Well, amazingly, no one around her – not her ministers, not her officials – seem to know. Why not?
“She won’t tell us” says a minister. “We go to see her. We give her our ideas about what to do next. She listens politely. She even asks questions. But none of us have a clue whether she agrees, whether she is persuaded. She gives us no hints. It is quite remarkable”.
Of course her officials – her chief of staff Gavin Barwell, the cabinet secretary, Mark Sedwill – are working on contingency plans for what should happen if (when) the vote is lost. That is their duty. But they too have no idea whether the PM will actually do what they suggest, as and when the time comes. In the words of one of their colleagues “they are in a silo, and the PM is outside the silo in one of her own”.
So with less than 12 weeks till Brexit day on 29 March, it is all a bit odd and unsettling. In respect of what in practice happens next, much will hinge on the margin of her defeat in that vote. When the vote was originally supposed to be held before Christmas, it was originally thought the PM would lose by 200 votes or more. But since then the EU has reiterated that the widely hated Northern Ireland backstop – the customs and regulatory arrangement designed to keep open the border on the island of Ireland but which is seen by critics as driving a wedge between Northern Ireland and Great Britain – would be a temporary fix. And the PM is hopeful such assurances from EU leaders that the backstop could not be forever will be repeated in coming days. It may be reinforced by an amendment to the Commons “meaningful vote” motion on her deal, which would mandate a future UK government to invoke the so called Vienna Convention to get out of the backstop if the EU failed to use “best endeavours” to replace the backstop in subsequent negotiations with a permanent and acceptable alternative.
But these initiatives would not provide total legal certainty that the UK could escape the backstop – which is what Northern Ireland’s DUP MPs, who support the PM in office, and many Tory Brexiter MPs say is the essence of what they need to cease their opposition to her Brexit plan. And they do not address the many other concerns of her MPs – Brexiters and Remainers – with what she negotiated, such as agreeing a divorce payment of £39bn, while allowing what they see as desperate uncertainty to persist about the UK’s future trading and security arrangements with the EU.
That is why the entire cabinet, with the possible exception of the PM herself, expects the meaningful vote to be lost. But let’s say – which some think plausible – Theresa May lost not by 200 but “only” by 80. In normal parliamentary circumstances that would still be game over. The world is not normal. Almost inevitably Jeremy Corbyn would then finally get round to tabling the motion of no confidence in the government under the Fixed Term Parliament Act that he has been threatening. And he too is expected by most of his colleagues to lose that vote. At which point there would be stalemate – and the very heightened risk of the UK leaving the EU without a deal. For most MPs (not all) no-deal is synonymous with an economic shock on a par with the Great Recession of 2008, with the risk of shortages of parts for manufacturers, a slump in investment, diminution in medicine stocks to life-threateningly low levels and civil disorder.
So at that juncture the PM would face the decision of her life: press ahead with another vote on her plan, by begging 40 or so Labour MPs to put Brexit and nation before party and vote for her (possibly tweaked again) plan to leave the EU; or do what many in her cabinet (Lidington, Rudd, Hammond, Clark, Gauke, inter alia) are already urging her to do, which is to hold a series of “consultative votes” of MPs, to establish what kind of Brexit or even no-Brexit Parliament might actually support.
It is a choice for her between pressing on with trying to win support for her Brexit proposal, at the risk that by 29 March the game is well and truly up, and the default position of an economically expensive no deal becomes the real position, or pivoting to pursue the revealed will of parliamentarians – which would not be a no-deal Brexit, could be a version of her Brexit plan reworked to make it closer to the plan Corbyn says he would support, but is more likely to be a referendum.
Here is the impasse. She views a no-deal Brexit and another referendum as equally toxic. And her lifelong modus operandi is to be immovable once she has a settled position (which in this case is that her Brexit plan is superior to anything else). However her cabinet is split between those who see a referendum as more poisonous than no-deal (Fox, Mordaunt, Leadsom and co) and those who take precisely the opposite view (Rudd, Clark, Hammond and co).
There is paralysis at the top of government on the most important question of our age at a time when time is desperately, horrifyingly short. These are conditions in which an organised opposition with a clear sense of direction could have a decisive, momentous influence on this country’s destiny (the lesson of Attlee in 1940 is instructive). But Labour too is desperately divided – and Jeremy Corbyn’s position on Brexit seems as distant from that of his party’s members as May’s is from Tory members.
Britain needs leaders and leadership, now more than ever. Who, if anyone, can and will seize the moment?
Robert Peston is ITV’s Political Editor. This article originally appeared on his Facebook page