“Sovereign Lord, as you have promised, you may now dismiss your servant in peace.”
What is Theresa May’s premiership for? She was chosen by her party to effect Brexit and she has applied herself with determination to the task ever since. She spent the first months whipping the Leave faithful into a fervour, convincing them that she was on their side. Thus we learned that Brexit was Brexit and that she wanted a red white and blue Brexit. An effigy of her bestrode the White Cliffs of Dover flicking the V sign at the continent.
Then came the general election and pride wenteth. She mislaid the Conservatives’ overall majority and for days looked in peril of immediate replacement. At the critical meeting of the 1922 committee she told MPs that she would serve them as long as they wanted her.
Despite expectations at that time, it turned out that they have wanted her for far longer than almost anyone would have conceived at that time. She has pressed on throughout with the project of delivering Brexit, defining what she regarded as essential and then working to negotiate a deal that met those criteria.
She has faced down internal critics, shrugged off defeats, used ambiguity creatively to persuade opponents to defer direct challenges, taken advantage of the inability of those opponents to articulate alternative plausible visions and presented a deal that she reasonably can argue is now the only way that Brexit can be effected without severe disruption on time.
Theresa May must have had strong hopes of this strategy succeeding. After all, what do her opponents have to offer? Hardline Leavers must surely want a Brexit more than a perfect Brexit? Pro-EU MPs must surely want a constructive engagement with the EU more than no engagement with the EU? Surely no one really wants the chaos and uncertainty that rejecting the deal would inevitably entail? Surely, in fact, a bad deal is better than no deal?
But no. It seems that nothing like a majority of MPs are ready to be rational. The referendum might have been won on an anti-immigration message but the MPs forming her majority are much more exercised by sovereignty, whether the place of Northern Ireland within the union or Britain’s unilateral ability to break free of the transitional arrangements.
Diehard Remain MPs believe, on skimpy evidence, that a fresh referendum will result in a reversal of the decision. Diehard Leave MPs believe, on even skimpier evidence, that there is time to renegotiate a better deal (they argue among themselves what that better deal might look like) or that leaving without a deal would be just fine. Labour believes it can use the chaos either to take power or massively to improve its chances of taking power soon. Everyone is preparing to play ducks and drakes with the nation’s future rather than take the safe option.
For someone as innately cautious and measured as Theresa May, this must come as a huge shock. Her purpose will have been brought to a shuddering stop. It looks likely that her deal will have been defeated beyond hope of a return in Parliament, whatever finessing or window-dressing she might be able to secure in Brussels.
Perhaps I am being too charitable but my reading of Theresa May is that she would regard the purpose of securing the best possible arrangements for Britain in the EU as being more important than her own political career. So what are her options for the country?
There are the same four options ahead: sign on this deal; negotiate a new deal; make arrangements for no deal; or remain in the EU. The first or second could be implemented by the executive with Parliamentary backing under the mandate that has already been given by the referendum. However, the first looks likely to be decisively rejected by Parliament and there is no real hint that the EU is open to discussing the second (and Theresa May would have no credibility as a negotiating partner in such a discussion). The last option would require a fresh mandate. There is scarcely a mandate for a no-deal Brexit that could lead to medicine shortages, disrupted supermarket supplies or unpurified water either.
All this suggests that an electoral mandate is needed either to overrule Parliament’s rejection of the deal or to instruct Parliament to go for no-deal or no-Brexit. That mandate could be secured either through a general election or through a referendum.
Two problems present themselves with the idea of a general election. First, the Conservatives would have no ability to unite around a prospectus. Secondly, and relatedly, general elections are no longer under the control of the Prime Minister: Parliament has to vote for it (and Conservative MPs may refuse to play ball). The first problem in particular looks like a deal-breaker from the viewpoint of the governing party.
That leaves a referendum. Time is desperately short, so the Prime Minister if, as I believe her to be, is a responsible stateswoman is going to need to ensure that one is called pretty well straight away. But it would also be a direct admission of failure by the political classes to carry out the biggest electoral mandate ever granted. Someone is going to have to take responsibility for that. That list is going to include, as a bare minimum, the Prime Minister.
Even if Theresa May disagrees and believes that her deal is salvageable or another deal is negotiable or that the country should then leave the EU with no deal, she would after a crushing Parliamentary defeat lack the authority or credibility to take that task forward. She would need to hand over to someone who could make a fresh start.
There are Parliamentary and party mechanisms to oust the Prime Minister but an honourable woman would not need to be dragged out of the door with her fingernails embedded in the jambs at a time when urgent work was needed to be done for the country that she could not do. I believe Theresa May is an honourable woman and so if as currently looks very likely she is defeated heavily next week, I expect her to resign, very possibly calling for a referendum as her last duty as Prime Minister. A fourth Conservative Prime Minister in a row would see her premiership destroyed over the subject of the EU.