High noon approaches
What should have been a relatively straightforward week for Theresa May (compared with weeks to come at least), descended into chaos as the government lost a non-binding vote on the Brexit process and her top civil servant was overheard providing less than helpful comments on the renegotiation process. With the prime minister still no closer to gaining the concessions from the EU that are required for her to get her Brexit deal passed, the week's events once again demonstrate the challenges faced by the government in getting MPs to agree on anything Brexit related at all.
With parliament and government at loggerheads over her withdrawal agreement, the prime minister could be forgiven for thinking that the civil service was the one political institution that shouldn't be giving her any headaches. That all changed this week however when the UK's chief Brexit negotiator, the civil servant Olly Robbins, was overheard in a Brussels bar claiming that the only choice left for MPs was to vote for a reworked version of the withdrawal agreement or face a lengthy extension to article 50. This stark admission significantly undermines the prime minister's public claims that she will not countenance a delay to Brexit, and that the only choice MPs face is between her deal, no deal or no Brexit. With the government refusing to comment publicly on the story, Tory brexiteers seized on the comments as proof that May is slowly edging towards supporting a customs union in order to win over Labour votes for her deal. The idea of a customs union is toxic to many Brexit-supporting Conservative backbenchers, and whilst May has so far ruled it out, as we saw with the 2017 general election, the prime minister ruling something out does not mean it will not happen.
Speaking lots, saying little
In what has become an almost weekly ritual now, on Tuesday the prime minister once again gave a statement in the Commons on the progress (or lack thereof) she had made on renegotiating the Irish backstop. The prime minister was on her feet for two hours, but due to the lack of progress in the renegotiations, was forced to tell MPs that effectively "nothing has changed". For the most part May was forced onto the back foot, defending herself from remainer claims that she is running the clock down and risking a no deal Brexit, and leaver claims that she is not asking for enough change to the withdrawal agreement. May responded in her usual fashion, claiming that it was parliament refusing to endorse her Brexit deal that was causing the real risk of a no deal Brexit and that the EU had repeatedly claimed it would not agree to wholesale changes to the withdrawal agreement in any case. The prime minister pleaded with MPs to "hold the line" and give her more time to seek an acceptable agreement with the EU.
However, with time ticking down until Britain is due to leave the EU on 29 March, parliament is growing increasingly impatient and action to take the Brexit process out of the government's hands could come within the next two weeks. The next round of votes on Brexit is due to take place on 27 February and there are suggestions more than 12 ministers could resign in order to support an amendment by Labour MP Yvette Cooper that would allow parliament to force the government to ask for an extension of article 50, in order to rule out a no deal Brexit. This has been dubbed as a "high noon" moment and after months of resignation speculation, may finally be the day these threats become a reality.
Theresa May's week ended in much the same way it began, with what should have been a non-controversial Commons motion, re-stating that the House was opposed to a no-deal Brexit and wanted the prime minister to renegotiate the backstop, turning into a significant defeat for the government. Whilst the vote was non-binding, it will be viewed by the EU as further proof that May is unable to win over parliament for any position on Brexit. The government faced threats from both sides of the Brexit divide over the motion, culminating in them having to accept an amendment from arch remainer Anna Soubry which instructed the government to publish the most recent official briefing document on the implications of a no-deal Brexit on business and trade. Simultaneously, the European Research Group (ERG), led by Jacob Rees Mogg, refused to vote for the motion because they believe that no deal must be kept on the table as a negotiating tactic (and for many members of the ERG it is an attractive option in itself). As a result of the ERG abstention, the government lost by 45 votes and the ability of the prime Minister to achieve changes to the backstop now seems in even greater jeopardy. This is because the EU now has even less clarity on what the UK is trying to achieve from the renegotiation. The EU response was best expressed by the French European Affairs Minister Nathalie Loiseau who quipped "I am telling our British friends that it is about time to decide". For the prime minister however, high noon approaches, and that decision may soon no longer be hers to take.