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Monday 11 March 2019

What a surprise, Theresa May’s last-minute flight to Brussels didn’t happen. Her RAF Voyager spent the night resting on the tarmac. Various news outlets had got wind of late concessions to partially detoxify the Irish backstop and potentially get the prime the minister the majority she needs to pass her appalling withdrawal agreement.

Politico’s sources in London and Brussels say Mrs May held a call with Jean-Claude Juncker last night. She won’t be flying out.

It’s still possible, something could be put forward today, 24 hours or less before the vote. But with the pro-EU House of Commons assured another vote on either Wednesday or Thursday to rule out a WTO Brexit, the EU has little incentive to budge. Its best course of action is to sit back and watch events play out. This has been their strategy since setting the negotiating guidelines just under two years ago. From Brussels perspective, it has worked out rather well.

The big vote in the Commons this week is not the one for May’s deal, but no-to-No-Deal, as it will undoubtedly signal the moment Parliament takes control of Brexit, foreshadowed for some time now.

Tory MPs outside of the European Research Group are finally beginning to recognise that would be disastrous. The Times reports senior backbenchers are urging May to push the second meaningful vote back a second time (this is all getting very repetitive) and replace it on Wednesday with a motion setting out the terms for a withdrawal the government and its thinning majority universally approve of – i.e. no backstop.

The concept has some grounding. Brussels will at least listen to what the motion has to say, lest we forget they want a deal. It also puts Brexit on a steadier footing as May’s government crumbles and the Commons stands poised to take over.

And it really is crumbling. Aside from that thin working majority, now down to about four, according to the Telegraph, May only has two supporters in the cabinet, Chris Grayling and Karen Bradley, both pretty useless with little hope of being part of any future government.

“I would say there are only two ministers in the Cabinet who still support her. Everyone else has lost faith in her ability to lead,” said a source. Ministers have discussed telling their flagging boss to “go now with dignity” rather than struggle on through to December.

Either way, some parliamentary motion or amendment will set the direction of Britain’s withdrawal (or not) from the EU before the week is out – it could be the Tory motion, which we concede is unlikely to resemble a sovereign exit from the EU, or the Nick Boles-led push for Brexit to be delayed until Article 50 is reversed or Britain commits to remaining in the Customs Union and Single Market.

One person clear on the decision MPs should take is Boris Johnson. “It would be preposterous to take the option of no-deal off the table. If indeed that option is put to Parliament this week, the Government must obviously whip against it,” writes Boris in his column.

“The same goes for the absurd idea of extending Article 50. This is not just a question of keeping faith with the people, or with Conservative election promises.”

One reason for listening to Boris’s advice that even Remainers can appreciate is that it is the EU, not Parliament that decides whether Brexit can be delayed or not.

The terms of that extension are looking worse and worse for Remainers as well as Leavers, with the EU27 said to be increasingly against the idea of a long extension – which it would need to be for the Remain side to meet its objectives.

As for the sane among us, the Telegraph report we would be looking at a billion pounds a month in payments to the EU coffers after March 29. Eye-watering sums of money to hand over for the privilege of having our negotiating hand weakened.

But what else should we expect.