After a punishing day in the office,
After yesterday – after her very public and painful decision to postpone her
At breakfast yesterday, Environment Secretary Michael Gove said he was ‘100 per cent’ sure the vote was still on.
By 11:30am Mrs May had calmly told a Cabinet conference call she was slamming on the brakes.
‘After a punishing day in the office, Theresa May likes to relax with a glass of Welsh whisky. After yesterday – after her very public and painful decision to postpone her Brexit vote – the Prime Minister could be forgiven for pouring herself a double’ writes JACK DOYLE
The reason? The knotty issue of the Northern Ireland backstop and fears of a defeat on a scale of anything up to 150 votes.
Last night her supporters laid at least part of the blame squarely on embattled French President Emmanuel Macron.
Two weeks ago, on the Sunday of the EU Summit in Brussels when Mrs May’s deal was signed, No10 officials were cautiously optimistic.
‘We had a mountain to climb, but we thought we had some momentum and could get away from the backstop to start selling the deal on its merits – control of borders and protecting jobs,’ says one aide.
But then came the Macron hand grenade. The French President – desperate to focus attention away from the riots at home – broke ranks.
The UK would still have to give way on the hugely sensitive area of fishing, he warned, or facing being stuck in the Northern Ireland backstop in perpetuity.
‘It was backstop blackmail, and we never recovered,’ a source admits. The next day, Mrs May faced question after question on the backstop.
Then Donald Trump – in typical style – declared this was ‘a great deal for the EU’.
No10’s strategy to pressure MPs by building support among voters and business became irrelevant. ‘They were just talking to each other about how much they didn’t like the backstop’, a source sighs.
On November 30, a little-known Remain-supporting minister, Sam Gyimah, quit, and called for a second referendum.
Meanwhile, the informal Twitter count of Tory MPs opposed to the deal crept higher and higher.
The other name Downing Street officials spit with fury is that of Speaker Bercow. By selecting MP after MP opposed to the deal every time Mrs May appeared before them, he too created the impression the agreement was friendless.
Controversially, he selected an amendment proposed by arch-Remainer Dominic Grieve designed to hand Parliament power over what happens if the deal fell. It was, Tory sources say, a highly contentious move.
In a single calamitous day, last Tuesday, the Government lost that vote and two others.
It forced the publication of the Attorney General’s legal advice, a letter which made clear the risk of being stuck inside the backstop. Passages pointing to reasons why the EU hated the backstop were largely ignored.
Now several Cabinet ministers and backbenchers were hammering away trying to convince No10 to pull the vote. Chief among them was Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson who, as a former chief whip, knew the grim reality of the numbers.
‘At breakfast yesterday, Environment Secretary Michael Gove said he was ‘100 per cent’ sure the vote was still on’
But the message wasn’t getting through. Sir Graham Brady, the ‘shop steward’ of backbench Tories, begged the PM to delay. He went public last Thursday, saying Mrs May risked losing her job if she went ahead.
Among some May loyalists, considerable ire is also reserved for the Chief Whip, Julian Smith and what one minister called a ‘shambolic’ whipping operation.
Incredibly, last week he even allowed a TV crew to film him trying to convince the hardest of hardline Tory Eurosceptics, Philip Davis, to back the deal – an attempt which, predictably, failed. One senior Tory told the Mail it was ‘******* mad’.
At yesterday’s Cabinet call International Development Secretary Penny Mordaunt raised eyebrows among her fellow ministers by praising Mr Smith’s efforts to win the vote – despite his utter failure.
Yesterday Mrs May was told the likely scale of defeat – as many as 150 votes.
The argument that it was better to suffer a defeat and take it to Brussels to show how much help was needed, rapidly fell away.
A defeat of such magnitude would leave Mrs May’s very future in No10 in grave peril and the country in chaos.
‘For her, it’s duty, duty. duty,’ said one aide last night – seeking to explain why she doesn’t simply throw in the towel.
What happens next? Mrs May has pledged to ‘go boldly’ back to the European Union.
The question is whether there is anything the EU is prepared to offer which will buy off enough Tory MPs, or if pulling the vote has simply delayed the inevitable. She needs, as one former Cabinet minister told the Mail yesterday, to pull a ‘very large rabbit out of the hat’.
Mrs May has been written off before – again and again – and yet survived. But if she is to defy her critics again she will need every bit of luck she can muster.