It doesn’t matter how long May delays the Brexit vote, this parliament won’t pass it

Downing Street hopes that by postponing it until the eleventh hour, MPs will be unwilling to risk leaving the EU without a deal.

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I’m taking my ball and I’m going home: Theresa May has mothballed today’s vote on the Brexit withdrawal agreement to head off a triple-digit defeat, and is heading on a whistlestop tour of European capitals to persuade them to do something to make the backstop more palatable to MPs.

But of course, nothing is going to be forthcoming. Even Downing Street knows that: before they pulled the vote, they were warning, correctly, that to re-open the withdrawal agreement is to re-open a number of painful fights over fishing, Gibraltar and so on. And the era in which Conservative MPs were willing to take May’s assurances on trust has now passed.

The best May can hope for is another non-binding bit of paper from the EU27 saying that they really, really, really don’t want to trigger the backstop either. The important thing to understand about the backstop is it is an insurance policy: a treaty obligation that, come what may, there will not be a hard border on the island of Ireland. And you can add all sorts of rhetorical flimflam to your insurance policy about how both you and your insurance provider hope (albeit for different reasons) that your life insurance is never going to be triggered – but that rhetorical flimflam does not mean you’re going to live forever. That might be enough to allow some Conservative MPs an excuse to back the government, but it isn’t going to win over the DUP.

But what it’s really all about is delaying the vote until the eleventh hour, when – Downing Street hopes – MPs will be unwilling to risk leaving the European Union without a deal and the majority of her Conservative critics, plus some Labour MPs, will grit their teeth and vote for the withdrawal agreement.

There are two problems. The first is that this is what essentially everyone else is counting on. The second is that, yes, May can use the threat of the cliff-edge to win the meaningful vote on the withdrawal agreement. But it’s hard to see how anyone can pass the withdrawal agreement into law, let alone negotiate the future relationship, with this parliament, or one that looks anything like it.

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.