A video grab from footage broadcast by the UK Parliament's Parliamentary Recording Unit (PRU) shows Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May making a statement in the House of Commons in London on December 10, 2018. - Theresa May told the house that the Brexit withdrawal bill will be deferred. (Photo by HO / various sources / AFP) / RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE - NO USE FOR ENTERTAINMENT, SATIRICAL, ADVERTISING PURPOSES - MANDATORY CREDIT " AFP PHOTO / PRU "HO/AFP/Getty Images
Theresa May has bought a little time; it is far from clear she can do much with it © AFP

It is not foolish to run from a fight you are about to lose. Standing your ground in the face of annihilation is not the smart move. But you do need somewhere to run or you are merely delaying the inevitable rout. 

Theresa May’s  problem is that she has no such shelter, so her humiliating decision to pull MPs’ vote on her Brexit deal  shows a prime minister entering the end game. She was facing a triple-digit defeat on the most important issue put before parliament in more than 40 years. There is no way back from that.

Pulling the vote  on the deal gives her one more shot at securing changes when she dashes to Brussels later this week. Her weekend calls to European leaders will have persuaded her that some extra political assurances are possible, which might persuade some wavering MPs. But, barring the most unlikely cave-in by Brussels, Mrs May is not going to secure fundamental treaty changes to reassure MPs on the Northern Ireland backstop, which they see as a constitutional trap from which the UK cannot unilaterally escape.

Mrs May’s chaotic retreat from the vote offers a fairly clear indication of what might be on offer. Had the prime minister’s weekend of phone-bashing offered hope of truly meaningful change she would not have sent her ministers on to the media just a few hours earlier to insist that the vote was going ahead. She has bought a little time; it is far from clear she can do much with it. Mrs May was relying on momentum and a sense of inevitability to deliver her deal. Both have been lost. No new date has been set for the vote on her deal.

The inevitable conclusion is that we have entered a zombie premiership. A confidence vote, a leadership challenge and the collapse of her EU exit deal are the only staging posts left on this road.

In her statement, however, Mrs May disclosed a bigger truth. Unveiling her agreement last month, she said the only alternatives were “no deal or no Brexit”. On Monday, Mrs May’s emphasis was strongly on the no Brexit outcome. This was no oversight: for the first time in this process, parliament’s Remainers believe they have the upper hand. Her not very subliminal message to Brexit backers is that they are risking what they have worked so hard to secure. 

Manoeuvring the hard Brexiters into line, long the tactical victory she needed, may no longer be enough for Mrs May. What her statement indicated was the most likely alternative to her deal is not a hard Brexit, but a second referendum. There are now enough Tory Remainers supporting another vote to defeat her proposition.

The campaign for a new public vote is gathering what looks like escape velocity. The only remaining obstacle for the People’s Vote campaign is the burgeoning support for the so-called Norway Plus option, which would see the UK remaining in the single market and the customs union. In June, the leading lights of the second referendum campaign voted for just such options. Now they are working to kill the idea. Last week they published a dossier lambasting every aspect of “Norway Plus”, with crocodile tears over its failure to “take back control”. Like Lenin purging the Mensheviks, the People’s Vote campaign is slaughtering the Norwegians. 

Assuming the May agreement still ultimately is rejected, the cabinet moderates will try to make a go of the Norway option but the Remain majority in the Commons looks to be solidifying behind the second referendum. Drunk on the chance of stopping Brexit , campaigners are deaf to the dangers.

The fight now is as much over what the referendum will ask. Some, like Caroline Lucas of the Greens, say it should be a choice between Mrs May’s deal and remaining in the EU. This risks allowing Leavers to depict it as a sham.

Others, including Tony Blair, see the danger of letting Mrs May’s compromise on to a ballot paper. He instead proposes an all-or-nothing second vote with Remain and a hard Brexit as the only options. This is Russian roulette with three bullets in the chamber — an extremely high risk to take when Leavers will be able to campaign with the slogan “Tell Them Again”.

Mrs May’s deal could be rescued by Labour pro-Europeans were she prepared to put it to the public. But her own MPs will fight hard to stop her taking such a position even if she wished to. Such a step would certainly trigger the long-threatened leadership challenge. Only a remarkable change of fortune or unforeseen diplomatic success can restore her prospects. Tenacious as ever, the prime minister is still fighting for her deal. She lives to fight another day but her army continues to dwindle. The decision cannot be deferred for long. She can keep going for now, but the road ahead is fading fast.

robert.shrimsley@ft.com

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