Brexit: why Theresa May now sees no-deal as second-best option
The FT's UK political commentator Robert Shrimsley and editor Lionel Barber discuss the prime minister's change in strategy
Theresa May sat alone while European leaders decided the timing of Britain's departure from the European Union. Here with me is Robert Shrimsley to explain what looks like a decidedly dicey deal. Robert, when is Britain going to leave?
It's still very much up in the air, Lionel. The European Union has given Britain two new dates for departure. The first is April the 12th, if Theresa May cannot get her deal through, possibly next week. And the second is May 22, if she does get her deal through. And that's the amount of time it needs to put the mechanics in place.
So we're still very, very much up in the air. We were hurtling towards the cliff edge a couple of days ago.
That's crashing out.
You know, we were eight days from the cliff edge with no-deal looking a serious possibility. No-deal is still definitely an option. But the date has pushed back a little bit.
So we've got a couple more weeks. But at the moment, of course, this is a very fluid situation. But Mrs May's deal looks, it's against the odds, isn't it, of passage?
It's very hard to see, as things stand, how she gets this deal through. It's an amazing reversal in the last seven days of her position. Seven days ago, she had a strategy. And the strategy was to squeeze her own Brexit hardliners and say, look, it's running away from us. If you don't vote for my deal, we're going to get a soft Brexit or a delay. And that was beginning to work. They were beginning to crack.
In the space of a couple of days at the beginning of this week, she has flipped her strategy on its head, if indeed she still has a strategy. She's now appeasing her hardliners and essentially trying to frighten the rest of parliament into backing her deal for fear of a no-deal exit.
And should we blame the Speaker, John Bercow, for citing a 1604 precedent, whereby you can't just keep coming back with the same deal for approval in the House of Commons?
I think there were four decisive steps to the way Theresa May turned. And that was one of them.
The week before, MPs had failed yet again to seize control of the parliamentary timetable. And she looked at them and thought, you guys are never going to get your act together on an alternative deal. The next day, nearly 200 of her own MPs voted against an extension of Article 50.
Then John Bercow's ruling came up, stopped her from putting the meaningful vote again before the European summit. And then finally, her own cabinet turned on her and said, we cannot support a long delay. And the chief whip advised her clearly that the party would be broken if she tried to force through a long delay. And I think Theresa May has essentially changed position. She now believes that a no-deal Brexit is the second best option after her own deal.
So let's just assume that her deal is voted down, obviously, speculation. Does she then have to resign?
It's very difficult to see how she can stay on, and indeed, why she would want to. Because she has said she does not want to oversee a long delay. And the only alternative to a long delay, if her deal falls, is no deal. I think she might be prepared to carry that through.
But what will happen in parliament is that MPs are going to give themselves the chance to vote on alternative options. The staying in the single market, the so-called Norway option, permanent customs union, second referendum, all the other options. If one of those were to get a majority in parliament, and it has to be said, MPs have proved very inept at solidifying...
And there isn't a cross-party movement either.
If one of them were to get a majority, I think, and her policy's been voted down, it's very hard to see how she can stay on or why she would want to.
And what happens then? Does the deputy prime minister step in? Or do we have to have a leadership election?
No. I mean, the Conservatives, unlike the Labour party, don't have an official deputy. So although David Lidington is often referred to as the de facto deputy, it's de facto, not de jure. And the way it works is that she would say she was resigning as prime minister but would stay on as prime minister until such time as the Conservatives choose another leader. So she would be unfettered but also without any power. It would be very, very messy.
The one thing that could happen, I suppose, is that parliament votes to attach the future direction to her deal. In the political declaration they say, we now want that to say it's Norway, or it's permanent customs union, and then we'll vote through your deal. Or it could say, we'll vote through your deal if we can attach a referendum to it. So at that point, she might think it was worth just staying on a bit longer to take it over the line. But it's very, very messy, very difficult.
And finally, the other point is that it's very hard to see how a government not committed to a policy of this importance could then legislate it through. The Tories don't believe in the Norway option, so how could they actually take that through? You could well then be heading for an election.
So Robert, I'm going to put you on the spot. It's not a football question. Are we likely to have an early election, general election?
I think the odds of an election sometime this year are going up all of the time. Most paths lead to an election. The only one that I think doesn't is if MPs solidify around her deal, which, as we've said, does not look very likely at the moment.
Robert Shrimsley, thank you very much.