When MPs voted to give Theresa May a mandate to renegotiate the Irish backstop last month, the prime minister promised them another vote on Valentine’s Day should she fail to reach a new deal with the EU by February 13.
Interpreted in some quarters as a sop to ministers opposed to leaving without a deal, the prime minister’s promise of a statement on her next steps, followed by a debate and vote on an amendable motion, effectively teed up a repeat of the January 29 vote which saw Graham Brady’s amendment pass and Yvette Cooper’s fall.
With no new accord with Brussels in sight, and intra-Tory relations regressing to the status quo ante, the stage would appear to be set for another parliamentary reckoning for a prime minister next Thursday. If she keeps to her word, that is.
Next week’s parliamentary business will be laid before MPs tomorrow. Unlike last week’s vote, the timing of which was dictated by the EU Withdrawal Act, the Prime Minister is not obliged to follow through on her promise of another on Valentine’s Day. “Nothing binds her,” a Commons source admits, “but it’d be really bad form to have told the House and then not bring the vote back.”
But the object lesson of the past few months in Westminster is that when May is only bound by convention, unwritten rules or political decency, she is not squeamish about disregarding them for her own ends. And with attempts to broker a so-called compromise on the Irish border within the Conservative Party still underway, there is little political incentive for the prime minister to subject herself to another vote so soon.
Asked whether next Thursday’s vote will still happen, a Downing Street source refused to deny it would be postponed and said only that it is the government’s ambition for MPs to have their say “as soon as possible.” It is hardly a firm commitment, and in any case one that May has the means, motive and opportunity to shirk. Nothing is stopping her kicking the can further down the road – and there is reason to believe she is poised to do so.