The surprise is that anyone should be surprised. Ever since Theresa May squandered the Conservatives’ hard-won majority in June 2017, her entire premiership has been an exercise in delay. All else has been subordinated to the task of mere survival.
Her decision to postpone tomorrow’s planned vote on her Brexit deal – which she was certain to lose – is entirely in keeping with this pattern. A Prime Minister who once aspired to transform the ideological landscape in the manner of Margaret Thatcher and Clement Attlee has been reduced to Micawberism: “Something will turn up”.
But in the case of Brexit, it will not. The EU – exasperated by the UK’s internecine warfare – will grant no significant concessions at the leaders’ summit this week. As Brussels has long signalled, the legally-binding withdrawal agreement, including “the backstop” to prevent a hard Irish border, will not be reopened. Though Tory Brexiteers pretend otherwise, there is no better alternative available. Talk of a time-limited or conditional “backstop” is oxymoronic: the backstop, of UK membership of a customs union, is indefinite and unconditional or it is nothing.
May has played a bad hand badly – she lost her majority in an unnecessary election, she triggered Article 50 without having agreed a plan, and she carelessly alienated EU leaders – but a bad hand it always was. From the moment that she reaffirmed the Leave campaign’s pledge to avoid a hard Irish border, a softer Brexit became inevitable. None of the alleged “technological” solutions offered by Leavers have ever been credible. The only certain way to prevent a hard border is for the UK to indefinitely remain in a customs union. The Brexiteers’ true quarrel is not with May but with reality.
The defeat of the Prime Minister’s agreement would at least have forced the government to confront the choices before it. It can leave the EU with no deal – the current default legal outcome; it can choose a soft, Norway-style Brexit (there is no majority for a harder Brexit and a new Irish border); it can trigger a general election; or, it can stage a second referendum.
All of these options, to different degrees, are unattractive: a no-deal Brexit would be one of the greatest acts of national self-harm in post-war history, a Norway-style deal would render the UK a rule-taker, rather than a rule-maker, a general election would risk another hung parliament and continued paralysis, a second referendum would intensify social divisions and further undermine the principle of parliamentary sovereignty. But before 29 March 2019 – the current legal date for UK withdrawal – Britain will have to choose one of them.
May’s decision to postpone the vote has, for now, spared her one of the most humiliating defeats in parliamentary history. But it has merely prolonged the UK’s pain and obscured the grim reality: there are no good options for Britain.