At lunchtime yesterday Theresa May looked finished. Negotiations with Brussels had failed. It appeared that Britain’s last days in the European Union had turned into a fiasco, and the Prime Minister’s heroic three-year quest to deliver Brexit was doomed.
Around the time after-lunch coffee was being served, though, rumours started to circulate. A breakthrough!
Like a greyhound out of the traps, Mrs May was en route to the airport to catch a flight to Strasbourg.
‘At lunchtime yesterday Theresa May (pictured) looked finished. Negotiations with Brussels had failed. It appeared that Britain’s last days in the European Union had turned into a fiasco, and the Prime Minister’s heroic three-year quest to deliver Brexit was doomed’
This last-minute dash meant only one thing. The Prime Minister smelt a deal in the offing. One that could help her muster enough support in the House of Commons.
But is she right?
Has Mrs May extracted enough from Brussels to satisfy the 118 Tory Brexiteers who voted down her deal in January – in the process inflicting the largest defeat on a sitting prime minister in living memory?
We won’t know the answer to that question till later today, but the problem is simple to explain. Mrs May cannot hope to get the support of Tory rebels if her withdrawal arrangement leaves Britain stuck forever in the Irish backstop – meaning that Northern Ireland must stay in the customs union, subject to European rules but with no decision making capacity.
Brexiteers say that such an arrangement turns Britain into a ‘vassal state’. Not in a million years will they vote for it.
However, if Mrs May has persuaded the president of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, and chief negotiator Michel Barnier to provide an escape route from the backstop, then her deal has a chance of getting through the House of Commons.
Last night the Government and Brussels agreed a plan that could enable Attorney General Geoffrey Cox to alter his legal advice on the backstop.
The package includes a new legally-binding document that should allow the UK to seek an exit from the backstop if the EU tries to make it permanent, along with legal status for a separate package of assurances offered by Brussels in January.
The MPs’ vote today is one of the most fateful parliamentary votes in British history.
The mere fact that Mrs May went to Strasbourg yesterday evening for a meeting with Mr Juncker sends a strong signal that the Prime Minister is confident that she’s got a deal.
‘If Mrs May has persuaded the president of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker (pictured), and chief negotiator Michel Barnier to provide an escape route from the backstop, then her deal has a chance of getting through the House of Commons
She hardly want to risk a humiliating failure.
But remember this. The Prime Minister is not the ultimate arbiter. She will have to defer to her Attorney General. In uncanny ways Mr Cox finds himself in the same situation as his predecessor Lord (Peter) Goldsmith found himself in ahead of the Iraq war in 2003.
Tony Blair was desperate to invade. But he could not give the order to send troops to Iraq until he received a formal undertaking from Goldsmith that the war was legal. And we now know that Blair twisted Lord Goldsmith’s arm to ensure that he came to the ‘right’ decision.
Geoffrey Cox is thought to be made of sterner stuff. Unlike the hapless Goldsmith, MPs believe he is his own man.
Last January he struck a body blow to the Prime Minister when he warned there was a risk that the backstop ‘would endure indefinitely’.
That is why Mrs May needs Mr Cox to confirm that the Irish backstop problem has been solved. A Cox veto – and she and her deal are both finished.
Crucially, Mr Cox did not fly to Strasbourg with Mrs May. He stayed at Westminster, keeping his distance.
‘Last January Geoffrey Cox (pictured) struck a body blow to the Prime Minister when he warned there was a risk that the backstop ‘would endure indefinitely’
Very wise. More than anyone else, Mr Cox has the future of Mrs May in his hands. And – far more importantly – Britain’s future in the EU.
Brexiteers insist, nevertheless, that even he does not have the final say. Members of the European Research Group of hardline rebels have employed a team of eight lawyers to make their own judgment. Who can say what advice they will give?
Nevertheless, matters were looking much more hopeful last night. There was a spring in the Prime Minister’s step.
We will know later today whether she achieved enough to convince the Tory rebels.
If she hasn’t, Britain is on course to crash out of the European Union without a deal on March 29.
Matters will no longer be in Mrs May’s hands. With time running out, Parliament could move to delay the implementation of Article 50 and rule out No Deal. In which case, political and economic upheaval looms. The stakes could not be higher.