You wouldn’t normally base your political expectations on a chat in the pub. But when the guy propping up the bar is Theresa May’s top Europe advisor, Olly Robbins – the architect of her strategy in Brussels and the ERG’s favourite hate figure – you should safely be able to draw your Brexit roadmap from it.
When ITV reported a second-hand overheard conversation in a Brussels bar where Robbins described how MPs would end up being presented with the option of May’s Brexit deal or a long delay, it seemed to offer a key that would unlock the whole process of leaving the EU.
After MPs voted against no-deal last week and for an extension to Article 50, events appeared to be following Robbins’ script perfectly. The Government had hoped to bring the deal back for a third vote this week, with the threat of staying in the EU for anywhere between nine and 21 months looming over Brexiteers, forcing them to fall into line. Personally, I admit to breathing a sigh of relief at the end of last week’s chaos, thinking that a plan was coming together.
But nothing has been more corrosive over the past three years than the illusion of government control, and some forces are beyond even Robbins’ reckoning. The fact that his plan was so dramatically derailed this week means that a no-deal Brexit – always the legal default – could now happen by accident, unless there is an even bigger twist in the week ahead.
Rather than taking back control, the events of the past week put May’s fate in the hands of either the EU, or pro-EU Tories who could oust her to defeat her Brexit vision.
No one in Government predicted John Bercow’s intervention ruling out a third vote on the Brexit deal unless there was a significant change in content or circumstances. That in itself is worrying – the convention that motions can’t be voted on twice in the parliamentary session isn’t an obscure one. No one needs more evidence that Downing Street is floundering, but there it is.
His critics say Bercow’s intervention was an attempt to block Brexit and allow the second EU referendum he really wants, or at least rule out a no-deal scenario. By ruling out a vote before yesterday’s EU Council summit, the Commons Speaker certainly denied the Government its best chance of getting the deal through.
Bercow’s statement forced the EU Commission’s chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier to come out the following day and say a long extension needed a “clear purpose”. It also gave time for Brexiteers in the Cabinet to ambush May and force her to take a request for a long extension off the table.
The spectre aimed at scaring Brexiteers was vanquished, leaving opposition MPs as the only pool of votes to pass the deal. May’s extraordinary statement in Downing Street, shifting the blame onto parliament, burnt that bridge, too.
With various extension plans being discussed during intense talks in Brussels last night, EU leaders appear to have come to the conclusion that May, and her deal, are finished.
If she isn’t in control, to avoid a no-deal Brexit the UK is now in the hands of two groups: Remainers in the Cabinet, and the 27 governments of the EU.
A group of pro-EU Cabinet ministers have insisted they would do whatever it takes to stop no-deal. They may now have the time to show they mean it.
Both Barnier and French president Emmanuel Macron have said there is a way back, if the UK is ready for “deep political change”.
This could be a general election or a second EU referendum, but what the EU really wants to hear is that the red lines that have made a deal so difficult (or likely impossible) are going to be jettisoned, either by May, or her successor.
The Remain group in Cabinet includes Scottish Secretary David Mundell, who joined Amber Rudd, Greg Clarke and David Gauke in breaking a three-line whip to abstain on a motion to extend Article 50 last week. With so little time left, resignation isn’t enough. They would have to become the ‘men and women in grey suits’, insisting the Prime Minister abandons her red lines, or ushering her out of Downing Street.
The likes of David Lidington would need to lead a government of national unity in all but name, getting a Brexit deal through with Labour and SNP votes that keeps the UK in the single market and customs union. It would likely mean the end of the Conservative Party as we know it; at the very least, it would leave it to the next Tory leader to put its surviving pieces back together.
Even in Brexit Britain, a week can’t possibly hold that much drama, but a longer extension offers the opportunity.
Still, EU leaders can’t give the UK something it isn’t prepared to ask for itself. Conservative MPs lost the chance to push May from office when they failed to do the job before Christmas.
The UK’s venerable parliamentary democracy has shown itself not to be nimble enough for the last-minute pivot needed, and even if it could, its leaders command too little confidence to bring the public along with them.
In EU capitals, an election or a new EU referendum looks like a leap into more uncertainty, which the continent scarcely needs. Leaders and officials gathered in Brussels spoke openly about the “crisis” in the UK, and don’t want their fragile politics infected by the febrile mood around Westminster.
A no deal Brexit could still happen by accident. The only thing that’s certain is that Bercow and the EU have called time on Robbins’ pub blueprint.