Theresa May’s brinkmanship pushes the United Kingdom closer to no deal

The Prime Minister is betting that the fear of no deal will get her the Brexit she wants. Trouble is, so is everyone else.

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My way or the cliff: that’s the gambit that Theresa May is hoping will allow her to pass the withdrawal agreement into law. The Prime Minister has announced that she will deploy a procedural trick to pause the debate on the withdrawal agreement, avoiding a vote that she was bound to lose.

Her pretext: heading back to Brussels to secure further concessions in order to win over recalcitrant MPs. But the reality is that there is nothing that can be done to reassure either the DUP – who alone have ten MPs, putting her three votes short of where she needs to be to pass her deal – or her own critics on the Conservative benches. Her Brexiteer MPs fear that the backstop – the insurance policy to guarantee that there will be no hard border on the island of Ireland – will perpetually limit the United Kingdom’s ability to break away from the European Union. Her pro-Remain MPs regard the deal as an unacceptable loss of sovereignty, economic prosperity or both, and won’t vote for that reason.

May’s hope is that while voting against the withdrawal agreement on 11 December – more than three months before the United Kingdom leaves the European Union, whether it has reached a deal or not – is one thing, voting against the withdrawal agreement on 21 January or later is quite another.

That the government is lightyears away from being able to credibly say it has planned for a disorderly exit – though in reality the ability to do so was always limited – only adds to the risk that MPs will be running on 21 January.

But it’s clear – was clear even just from the weight of contributions in the House today – that Conservative MPs have already said too many things that they cannot take back and that the number of available Labour rebels to cancel them out is limited in the extreme. And the problem with delaying is that most of Parliament’s various Brexit tribes – committed supporters of a no deal exit, MPs who want to re-open the referendum question, supporters of a Norway style final relationship, and so on – are making the same bet as Theresa May: that the closer you get to the cliff, eventually someone else will blink and they will get their preferred outcome.

By delaying the vote and reducing the time available for MPs to reach some kind of accord, May is slightly increasing the chances that MPs will panic and back her deal. But she is doing so at the price of significantly increasing the chances that the United Kingdom will leave the European Union without a deal by mistake.

Stephen Bush is political editor of the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.