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PM has cancelled Plan A. With no Plan B. Now what?

It’s May’s masterwork ... Doing the opposite of what she says
(AFP/Getty)

“I believe it would lead to a significant loss of faith in our democracy. It would lead many people to question the role of this house and the role of members in this house.” 

At the despatch box of the House of Commons, that was Theresa May’s verdict on the wisdom of holding a second referendum. It’s worth repeating again already. “It would lead many people to question the role of this house and the role of members in this house.”

Approximately seven minutes earlier, she had confirmed what everybody already knew. Which is that she was cancelling the vote on her Brexit deal, scheduled for today. MPs had already debated it for three full days by this point. Yet she cancelled it because she knew she would lose it, by at least a hundred votes, and possibly 200.  

Debating something for days on end, and then cancelling the vote on it because you’re not going to get the result you want – isn’t that the sort of thing that might, I don’t know, lead many people to question the role of the house and the role of members in the house?

Because the role of the house, and the role of members in that house, is to vote on stuff. That’s what they do. There’s two specially made rooms at one end of the house, which in the interest of avoiding ambiguity, are even called “voting lobbies”.

Except the role of members in this house, at least today, will be, erm, not a lot actually. Because there’ll be no meaningful vote. And there’ll be not a whole lot else to take its place.

It is at this point you may decide to question the role of an altogether different house, 10 Downing Street, and the role of the member who lives in it.

Theresa May has already established an unrivalled reputation of dong the precise opposite of what she says she will do. This, after all, is the woman that brought you, “There will be no snap election”. This is the woman who then brought you, “If I lose just six seats [in this snap election], it will be Jeremy Corbyn sitting down in Brussels to negotiate Brexit”. She then lost 13, and as yet, no such thing has happened.

But this was certainly her masterwork. At 11.21am yesterday morning, the prime minister’s spokesperson told journalists the vote “is going ahead as planned”. This was in response to news that the cabinet would be holding a conference at 11.30am, which could only mean the vote would be cancelled. At 11.30am, sure enough, it was indeed cancelled.

What Theresa May expects to happen next absolutely nobody knows, including, we must assume, herself. She would have lost the meaningful vote by a vast margin, primarily because of the Irish backstop that threatens to keep the UK inside the single market and the customs union, and does not allow it to leave without the EU’s say so.

So she told the House of Commons that she would now go and “seek reassurances” from other European leaders over the backstop, but she also told them that “without a backstop there is no deal”. And she told them, for roughly the 10,000 time in the last fortnight, that the deal represented the “best deal” and the “only deal” for the British people. 

She cancelled the vote because she knew she would lose it. Now she will seek to acquire assurances that the backstop agreement can be watered down, which it won’t be, and hope that she can come back at some point in the near future and have the backstop agreement passed. It won’t happen. It can’t happen.

She pleaded with the House of Commons to do things she herself was not prepared to do. 

“If you want a second referendum that overturns the first, be honest that this risks dividing the country again,” she said.

“If you want to remain part of the single market and the customs union, be honest that this would require free movement and ongoing financial contributions,” she continued.

“If you want to leave without a deal, be honest that it would come with consequences.”

All of which is true, but Ms May, if you haven’t got the first clue how you’re going to get your deal through parliament, and you’ve got even less of a clue what to do when you don’t, you must be honest yourself.

Which is to say, in all honesty, you’re out of ideas, you’re out of time, you’re out of luck and soon you’ll be out of a job.

The DUP’s Nigel Dodds, in his customarily withering way, put the problem in exacting terms. “This isn’t credible,” he told her. “The prime minister says she is listening.

“But the Withdrawal Agreement’s legally binding text is not accessible to this house. So please prime minister, come back with changes to the Withdrawal Agreement, or it will be voted down.”

He knows the Withdrawal Agreement cannot be changed. Some vague commitment, some empty words, on avoiding the backstop might be tagged on the end, but they will not be enough. She cannot deliver her deal. And no deal will not be tolerated.

The only people whose role voters tend not to question in a democracy is their own. If parliament and government cannot find a way out of this perfect mess, it is unlikely they would suddenly start questioning themselves, if they were asked to step in. And the more Theresa May insists it will not happen, the more inevitable it becomes.