Westminster spent much of today speculating that Theresa May would make a drastic gesture in her address to the nation from Downing Street this evening. But in the end, the prime minister did not depart from type.
Rather than announce a general election or set out a timetable for her exit from office – as some had expected – May sought to appeal to voters directly. “You, the public, have had enough,” she said, stressing that her deal was the “best deal negotiable”. She described “final choice” facing MPs as one between her deal, a no-deal Brexit, or no Brexit at all.
None of which, of course, is particularly new. Where May’s words did depart from her thick back catalogue of No10 statements, however, was in their target. Usually her rhetorical crosshairs fall on Brussels. Tonight her ire was aimed squarely at a Parliament she attempted to cast as recalcitrant and averse to compromise in the national interest.
“You are tired of the political games and the arcane procedural rows, tired of MPs talking about nothing else but Brexit when you have real concerns about our children’s schools, our National Health Service, and knife crime,” she said, blaming parliamentarians for delaying Brexit until 30 June (this, she stressed, was her personal hard deadline). “You want this stage of the Brexit process to be over and done with.”
The problem for the prime minister is that it is difficult to see this gambit securing a majority in parliament for an orderly withdrawal. Those MPs whose votes will be required if May is to get “this stage of the Brexit process over and done with” on her own terms are precisely those she is browbeating: the Eurosceptics on her own benches, and Labour MPs who in any other circumstance would be sufficiently squeamish about being seen to stop or thwart Brexit that they voted for a deal. Scenes like tonight’s make compromise on the prime minister’s terms a bigger and more unpleasant ask for just about everyone who might eventually need to compromise.
As things stand, however, May’s deal has not changed – and neither has her approach. It has bombed on both sides of the House. “Bullying” is the word many MPs are using to describe it. Far from inducing the compromise parliament has hitherto proved singularly incapable of, the prime minister’s decision to double down risks encouraging parliament to ignore the choice she would like them to make.