It’s difficult to hold in your mind everything that’s happened in the politics of Brexit in recent weeks – not least because when you step back and survey the aftermath, you find that the UK has taken a step backwards in its search for a Brexit agreement.
It was less than three months ago that the government pulled its scheduled vote on the Brexit deal, fearing a heavy defeat at the hands of Brexiteers.
That led to MPs finding the government in contempt of parliament – for the first time in history – over its mismanagement of the whole Brexit process and its refusal to publish legal advice that fatally undermined the Irish border backstop.
Theresa May’s critics in the Conservative Party finally pulled the trigger on a leadership challenge, only to miss when she won the ensuing confidence vote. All that before Christmas.
Since the turn of the year, Theresa May’s Brexit deal has been crushed beneath a 230-vote defeat, the worst suffered by any government in modern parliamentary history.
The following day, she survived a parliamentary motion of no confidence brought by the Labour leader.
Finally, this week the Prime Minister had what is probably her first really good day at Westminster in a winter of woe, securing a mandate from MPs to demand that Brussels reopen the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement to perform surgery on the backstop. Brexit “optimists” suggest the outcome of Tuesday’s votes, with MPs backing a revised deal and ruling out a no-deal scenario via an amendment that the government opposed, means a chaotic and damaging Brexit is less likely.
Brexit “pessimists” argue the opposite, accusing the Prime Minister of abandoning her own negotiated agreement to hunt a “unicorn” simply to put her shattered party back together – and Remainers have lost their best chance of delaying Brexit or forcing a second EU referendum.
Despite warning MPs two weeks ago that the proposed deal was the best on offer, and couldn’t be separated from the controversial Irish border insurance policy, May now insists she has the authority to demand legally-binding changes to the withdrawal agreement.
It took all of six minutes after the result of Tuesday’s vote was announced for the EU to say no. The fundamental point remains that the EU will maintain solidarity with one of its members in a dispute with a soon-to-be not-member.
The Prime Minister has set herself a deadline of securing a re-negotiated agreement within two weeks, telling MPs they will have another chance to vote by 14 February. But there is no reason for Brussels to help May by responding to this arbitrary timetable – the real deadline for the EU is 29 March. If, as Brexiteers are fond of saying, Brussels wants to push the UK to the edge before offering its own concessions, we can’t expect a breakthrough until the last possible moment.
More fundamentally, the problem is that while the Prime Minister feels reassured by her fresh mandate, Brussels sees only more chaos. May won back almost all the 114 Tory MPs who rejected her deal two weeks earlier, but that doesn’t mean they all see eye to eye with one another.
They have very different ideas about the “alternative arrangements” for the Irish border that the government now wants the EU to accept as a replacement for the backstop. Officials in Brussels see those papered-over divisions and wonder: why offer a compromise that will just be voted down? May also has just weeks to identify alternative technologies and protocols for trade across the Irish border that the EU didn’t already reject in the months before the proposed Withdrawal Agreement was signed off.
The turmoil of the past few months has eroded trust in the government to such an extent that a compromise might not be possible. And while no-deal would be economically damaging to both sides, the political consequences will only really be felt in London. That’s why, despite everything that’s happened, the UK is back where it was before the deal was even agreed – looking for a way out, but now much closer to the cliff edge of 29 March.