Theresa May’s victory in a confidence vote on Wednesday night was supposed to settle the Conservative party leadership issue for a year: instead Tory rebels were calling for her to quit within minutes of the result.
The former Brexit secretary Dominic Raab became the latest Eurosceptic Tory MP to question her future, saying on Thursday that it was “very difficult to see” how she could remain as prime minister.
She headed to an EU leaders’ summit in Brussels on Thursday to try to salvage her compromise Brexit deal, knowing that more than one-third of her MPs are so opposed to her handling of the process that they want her removed as party leader.
How a last-ditch plan is emerging in Downing Street
Winning parliamentary backing for her deal appears an insurmountable task, but amid the chaos of the failed coup by Eurosceptic Tory MPs, it is possible to discern a last-ditch plan emerging in Downing Street.
Mrs May’s withdrawal agreement, approved last month in Brussels by the other 27 EU member states, remains the only deal on the table.
Her talks in Brussels were aimed at making progress on what she calls “legal and political assurances” from the EU that a backstop plan to avoid a hard Irish border can only be temporary.
Drawing inspiration from EU treaty fixes of the past involving Denmark and the Belgian region of Wallonia, Mrs May’s team hopes an obscure “joint interpretive instrument” can provide some legal cover to show the backstop could never be permanent.
Mrs May floated the idea on Wednesday with Arlene Foster, leader of the Democratic Unionist party that props up her minority government, in talks that were surprisingly positive given that the DUP is strongly opposed to the backstop plan.
“We have to reset the relationship with the DUP,” the prime minister told Tory MPs.
The argument goes that if Mrs Foster, a politician whose lexicon makes heavy use of the word “No”, can be persuaded of legal assurances around the backstop plan, then some of the Eurosceptic Tories that oppose the mechanism will also fall into line.
Mrs May is in no rush to finalise this legal fix with the EU. Andrea Leadsom, leader of the Commons, confirmed there was no intention to hold a Commons vote before Christmas on Mrs May’s deal after the prime minister postponed one on Monday to avoid a heavy defeat.
Downing Street wants to play it long — possibly until Mrs May’s self-declared vote deadline of January 21 — before bringing her deal before the Commons, thereby confronting MPs with an ever-more-urgent sense that they must back it to avoid a chaotic no-deal exit on March 29, 2019.
Mrs May’s team admitted, however, they may need at least two goes to win parliamentary approval for a revised deal, in the hope that MPs might finally act “in the national interest” amid growing business and market panic.
Could indicative votes or second referendum be an option?
If the deal still fails to command a Commons majority, then some in Mrs May’s cabinet want parliament to gain major influence over the process by giving MPs a series of “indicative votes” on a range of Brexit options.
The idea would be to assess whether any alternative to her deal — from a no-deal exit to a Norway-style close economic partnership with the EU — could command a majority.
Some senior Tories said another option for Mrs May — if she cannot get her deal approved by parliament — would be to submit it to the people in a new Brexit referendum.
Mrs May does not want to hand over control of Brexit to parliament, but in the end she may have no choice.
Europhiles in the cabinet, including chancellor Philip Hammond and Mrs May’s deputy David Lidington, have argued that indicative votes would prove beyond doubt to Eurosceptic Tories that parliament will not vote for a “harder” version of Brexit than that offered by her deal.
“If it becomes increasingly evident Norway . . . or a second referendum are gaining support, it is possible that even late in the day some of the 117 could come around to the deal,” said one cabinet minister.
Mrs May acknowledged that under any scenario she cannot count on the support of hardline Brexiters and outside Downing Street on Wednesday night she appealed for support from “politicians of all sides”.
Labour’s obscure position on Brexit — with leader Jeremy Corbyn promising an unlikely renegotiation of Mrs May’s deal — makes the dynamics of this approach hard to predict.
“There is no way on earth the public wants to see us doing deals with the Labour party,” said Iain Duncan Smith, the pro-Brexit former Tory leader.
But after the acrimonious events of this week, the prime minister has concluded that she has no choice.
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