May gambles running down Brexit clock will focus political minds
Faced with a Brexit vote she can't win, British prime minister Theresa May appears to be gambling that running down the clock to a no-deal departure might change the arithmetic in parliament.
Less than 24 hours after environment secretary Michael Gove insisted the vote on May's Brexit deal would go ahead on Tuesday, it seemed likely to be at least a month away. Parliament goes on recess on 20 December and won't return until 7 January. Meanwhile Britain leaves the European Union on 29 March, with a deal or without one.
A cabinet ally of May's, speaking on condition of anonymity, put the prime minister's strategy more charitably, saying that if the deal can't go through then the only option is to keep talking – to EU leaders, in the hope they might offer something more, and to lawmakers, in the hope they might ask a little less.
With that in mind, May postponed her weekly cabinet meeting on Tuesday and will visit Mark Rutte in the Hague and Angela Merkel in Berlin. News of the delay pushed the pound to its weakest since April 2017, and it was little changed at $1.2570 early on Tuesday.
Pressure on lawmakers
On the issue of persuading members of parliament, the minister said the prospect of the lower house voting on other options on 21 January could serve to concentrate minds in the pro-Brexit wing of the party.
The likely majorities in parliament are for staying close to the EU, or delaying departure. May's message will be that the choice they face is between her Brexit or the risk of no Brexit.
The question is whether they will believe her. So many have now spoken out against the deal that it will be hard for them to back down, even if she can agree changes to her deal with Brussels.
Liam Fox, a supporter both of Brexit and May, made the case to the BBC. "My greatest fear is not getting Brexit at all," he told Newsnight. He argued that because there's a majority against leaving the EU in parliament there's a danger "that we get stuck in some sort of limbo where we're not actually able to leave the EU".
May hopes there will also be pressure on lawmakers over Christmas from voters anxious about a "No Deal" Brexit. That could help to shift some pro-EU lawmakers in her party, and maybe even some in Labour. But unless she can win a significant chunk of the hardline Brexit wing of the Conservative Party, she still won't have the votes she needs.
Jacob Rees-Mogg, chairman of the pro-Brexit European Research Group, spoke for many rank-and-file Tories when he told reporters on Monday evening that May hadn't so much avoided defeat as conceded it.
"This deal has been defeated," he said. "The prime minister said she was pulling the vote because the vote couldn't be won."
His demands were the removal from the deal of the Irish backstop, payments of money to the EU, and clauses that give superiority to European courts in certain areas. May had earlier told parliament she is going to seek "additional reassurance" on the backstop.
What Rees-Mogg refused to discuss was the question of whether more letters calling for a confidence vote in May's leadership had gone in from other Conservatives. Forty-eight letters are needed to kick off that process – and, in spite of a lot of bluster, that threshold has not been met. Yet.
For all of her weakness, for all that her own side attacks her, it's still not clear the Tories can work out how to get rid of her or who would be able to deliver something better. Many of May's problems result from the lack of a majority in parliament, and any successor would have the same problem.
May can take comfort too from a concession of weakness from the opposition Labour Party. After declaring her "shambolic" government to be "in complete disarray", leader Jeremy Corbyn declined to call for a vote of confidence in her government – the potential trigger for the general election that he says he wants. The party acknowledged in a statement that it would lose such a vote.
Instead, Labour was left with stunts – one lawmaker briefly grabbed parliament's ceremonial mace in protest at May. The party's other maneuver, to secure an emergency debate on Tuesday on the calling off of the vote, won't cause anyone in the government to lose sleep.
But May's weakness has been exposed, and not simply in the House of Commons.
Explaining why she had waited until the last minute to pull the vote, when the parliamentary arithmetic had been obvious for well over a month, her cabinet ally explained that she had been too busy to think about the problem until the weekend, when she was able to go to her country retreat with her husband Philip and chew the matter over.