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Wednesday 15 May 2019

It’s no secret that Brexit is the bitterest of pills for Westminster to swallow. Just how poisonous remains to be seen, but judging by the prime minister’s latest move it induces a most severe form of insanity.

After weeks of speculation, Theresa May is poised to put her historically loathed deal to the Commons for a fourth time. She got around parliamentary rules, which dictate you can’t table the same motion, again and again, the last time by removing the pointless Political Declaration. Now she’s going the other way, by introducing the Withdrawal Agreement Bill. The vote is set for early June.

The logic goes like this: Talks with Labour are going nowhere. MPs hate Brexit. if the deal fails it will probably not happen it all. It’s Deal or No Brexit – No Deal is not part of the equation.

“MPs in constituencies that voted Leave will have to decide once and for all whether they back Brexit or want to risk Parliament voting to revoke Article 50 when the current Brexit extension runs out in October,” a government spokesperson told the Telegraph.

“We can’t guarantee that the Brexit bill will pass, but if it doesn’t, the EU will also have a choice to make: does it offer Britain a better deal, or does it fuel the rise of the Brexit Party by risking Brexit being cancelled by MPs?”

Nice try, except No Deal is part of the equation, now more than ever, the rise of the Brexit Party is testament to that. No matter how mad she is, May and whoever replaces her as leader knows the political crisis brought about by revoking article 50 would be far more consequential than leaving the EU without terms. It would be devastating.

They also need to wisen up to the brave new world ushered in by President Trump. Multilateralism for the sake of it is dead, the nation-state rules. Where genuine mutual interest exists, it should be pursued in partnership, as it is with NATO. Where it doesn’t as is the case with EU and its multiple endeavours delivering no benefit, it should not. The doctrine is simple.

Back to the bill, aka WAB. No formal deal has been struck with Labour. Talks endure however. “Useful and constructive” was Jeremy Corbyn’s description of last night’s session. Part of Number 10’s calculation is surely that Labour will also receive a hammering at next week’s European elections, obliging Corbyn to get Brexit done with.

The Labour leader’s on the fence position isn’t sustainable. He can extract some concessions from the government on the customs union, workers rights etc. (concessions May is all too happy to give up, her speciality) to claim a victory for the left. Brexit will have been subdued, he will then be able to crack on with his socialist agenda.

But that’s not how it’ll go. Most of Corbyn’s MPs are baying for a ballot on the dreadful deal. The cynicism of his Brexit policy has been revealed – just look at the local elections.

Even without some buy-in from Labour MPs, formal or informal, Number 10 will point to incremental gains at each of the last three votes: 432 to 202, 391 to 242, 344 to 286 – 30 more votes, a smaller number than the previous two gains will do it. But May’s self-inflicted ordeal is like climbing a mountain, it gets harder the nearer you get to the summit.

The DUP will not be turned. “If the prime minister brings the Withdrawal Bill to the Commons for a vote, the question will be — ‘what has changed?’ Unless she can demonstrate something new that addresses the problem of the backstop, then it is highly likely her deal will go down to defeat once again,” said Nigel Dodds, the party’s leader in Westminster.

Some Tory MPs will also hang in there, and it’s impossible to envisage more than a couple of Labour MPs sticking their head above the parapet to join John Mann and Caroline Flint who have been virtually alone in advocating May’s deal from the opposition bench. Flint in particular has heavily undermined her stance by favouring a close relationship with the EU. She is no asset to the cause. They were joined by three other MPs at the last time of asking, an increase of just two on the previous occasion. True Labour Leaver and her like will not be joining them.

All of which means May’s last throw of the dice isn’t really about Brexit, even the deal is simply a means to an end, it’s about her. After a series of false promises, the Telegraph think the 1922 committee really will make a rule change, allowing for a no-confidence challenge to be brought forward if there’s no movement by July – a vote May will undoubtedly lose. Getting the WAB through will buy May a reprieve, but only a short one. She managed to leverage support from the likes of Jacob Rees-Mogg, Boris Johnson and Dominic Raab at the last by pledging to stand down once she’d accomplished her mission (or resolutely failed). Come what may, her time is almost up.

The situation is utterly bizarre. Mrs May will not stay in office beyond December – under current 1922 rules, the year-long grace period brought about by surviving the last no-confidence vote will have expired by then – Downing Street is talking about the Autumn. It is written in the stars, this prime minister is not going to do a Thatcher and reside in Downing Street for a decade, her legacy will fall into the Blair category. Honestly, what is the difference between leaving this summer and staying on until the end of the year? What is the point in even trying when the last desperate attempt to stay on will certainly fail?

Some might call that British pluck, most would call it liberal lunacy. This is a most unedifying spectacle. We deserve so much better. We deserve independence too.