What does Theresa May’s speech mean for the future of Brexit?

It seems not to have occurred to the Prime Minister that giving a deeply irresponsible speech parroting betrayal tropes would not encourage MPs to vote for her deal.

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Theresa May will today ask the EU27 to agree an extension to the Brexit process, but it is far from certain what type of extension, if any, she will get.

All eyes are on Emmanuel Macron, who is widely believed to be the most inclined to say “thanks, but no thanks” to any extension without a serious plan to resolve the deadlock. The FT’s Victor Mallet has an invaluable explainer of the French president’s thinking. Brexit complicates Macron’s twin political aims: to see off the threat of France’s own Eurosceptics and Marine Le Pen’s rebranded National Rally.

Bluntly, it is hard to see how, unless it is a straight choice between May’s deal and the cliff-edge, her deal can pass the House of Commons now. The groups that matter to passing a Brexit deal are, in no particular order: Conservative MPs who want an excuse to back the accord but who are worried about their constituents, Conservative MPs who want an excuse to back the deal but whose rhetoric has made it hard for them to do so, Labour MPs who want to back an agreement but who need to be able to square their local parties, the Labour leadership, which wants to avoid no deal without taking political damage.

The Prime Minister gave a deeply irresponsible speech in which she parroted the tropes of betrayal that drive many of the credible death threats that MPs receive. Many parliamentarians are saying privately what Labour’s Wes Streeting has said publicly: that her incendiary rhetoric will encourage and increase the risk to MPs.

This shouldn’t need to be spelled out, but apparently it didn’t occur to anyone in Downing Street: MPs are not going to vote for your deal if they think you are encouraging violence against them. 

Adding to May’s difficulty, Jeremy Corbyn’s decision to walk out of cross-party talks because of the presence of Chuka Umunna, on the grounds that the Independent Group isn’t a proper party and Umunna isn’t their leader, only increases the political risk to Labour of facilitating Brexit – but the only way that a no-deal Brexit will be avoided is with a sizable chunk of Labour votes.

So what’s left? We still don’t know how MPs will react if they are given a forced choice between May’s deal, the cliff and revoking Article 50: but the consequence of last night’s events are that the prospects of May’s deal passing have fallen still further while the chances of a no-deal exit have risen sharply.

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.

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