Is this a chink of light for Mrs May?
PUBLISHED: 15:28 13 December 2018
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Well, that was all a big waste of time wasn’t it? Perhaps not.
For months a Damoclean threat has dangled over the prime minister: do as the Brexiteers demand or you are out.
But when that sword finally fell it missed its intended target.
Theresa May, somehow, battles on.
And – just about – she has flushed out the awkward squad of MPs that were making her political life very tricky. Back in 1995 Sir John Major offered his opponents to “put up or shut up” and stood down as leader only to win the subsequent ballot.
But the rules have changed since then. Mrs May did not have that option – she had to wait until the challenge came before she could truly test her popularity.
She has proved the majority of her MPs back her. The reason for that might well be there is no other obvious candidate but the prime minister will be sleeping a little easier now.
So, with regards to internal Tory politics this bit of naval gazing was worth it.
But when it comes to Brexit is looks like an exercise in futility. Not one thing has changed to break the impasse. What kind of message has the Tory party sent out to the public?
Mrs May’s supporters were spot on when they dismissed the challenge as a waste of time and damaging.
And now she must return – battered and bruised – to the seemingly impossible task of grinding out concessions from the European Union that might unblock this Brexit mess.
Currently the only Brexit option which does not command some significant support is no deal. There remain plenty of MPs who want some kind of deal and plenty more who want to stay in the EU.
After winning the no confidence vote it seems likely some kind of deal will be struck. No deal was always a threat rather than a reality for this government. Mrs May does not want Britain to trade on WTO tariffs come April next year.
And I think it is also clear that the majority of those 17 million people who voted to leave did not expect the UK to crash out of the EU. No-one wants a messy, chaotic exit.
So in the end the safe money would surely be on Brexit being solved in the way most things play out in this country: a pragmatic, middle of the road compromise.
The UK’s electorate has never backed extreme parties. The extremes of fascism and communism thankfully never took hold here. Today the two main parties are as far apart on the political spectrum as any have been in this country for a very long time.
Mrs May is not as far to the right as many in her party. And in the early days of her leadership she tried to keep those Brexit hardliners happy. But, as she found out this week when the letters racked up to 48, she was unable to meet their demands.
Her victory might not have been convincing but those screaming for a no-deal Brexit from the backbenches will not carry the threat they once did.
The chance of no deal remains, of course, but it will only be through carelessness and failure rather than design if it happens.
With every day that passes without a breakthrough there is also the looming possibility of a second referendum. Although it appears unlikely at this stage, Mrs May’s options are running out.
If she cannot get a deal through parliament then what? Does she bypass MPs and ask the country?
The prime minister has always said there will not be a second vote – she also ruled out a general election in 2017 though – but she could offer two versions of Brexit instead. We could very well be voting in the new year on whether to back May’s deal of no deal.
That would prompt fury from those who want to stay in the EU. But Mrs May has always been clear that she will see through the UK’s exit from Europe. And there is no way MPs could simply ignore the public if they backed Mrs May deal or the alternative.
But referendums are a sign of weakness and the prime minister would use one only as a last resort.
For now she needs a friendly face in Brussels – and we should not rule that out. Although the EU has been clear that the Withdrawal Agreement is complete the right words and assurances over the Northern Ireland backstop at this crucial moment could be enough.
The EU do not want a no-deal Brexit. That would be as much a failure on their part as Mrs May’s.
The coup may have failed for the Brexiteers but it might just have offered the PM the chink of light she so desperately needs.