It has been another long and bruising week for Theresa May but she continues to fight on and must be confident of making it to Christmas. It's quite a feat given the challenges that her government has faced this year, which have ranged from being held in contempt of parliament, the Windrush scandal, the Chequers debacle and a vote of confidence from her own colleagues.
ECJ acknowledges the UK's power to determine its own future
The week began with an emergency ruling on Monday morning from the ECJ that, under EU law, the UK is able to unilaterally revoke Article 50. This means that the UK would still be able to maintain the privileges it currently enjoys (or doesn't depending on your perspective), including the budget rebate and opt-out of Schengen and the Euro while keeping its veto and role in EU institutions.
Practically, it's a get out of jail free card for the government in seeking to avoid a no-deal Brexit but politically it's a non-starter for this prime minister. The Brexit secretary Steve Barclay MP claimed that the ruling was irrelevant as government policy had not changed and they have "absolutely no intention" of overturning the 2016 vote. While the government's line was to be expected, this ruling has shifted the narrative slightly as it is no longer credible to claim that it is May's deal vs. no deal. A no-deal outcome is very much still on the table and, recognising this, the EU has accelerated its plans to publish additional guidance on no-deal planning to Wednesday next week.
The path of least resistance
That the government left it so late to pull the 'meaningful' vote surely demonstrates the chaos of the current political situation in the UK. No government walks into a vote that it knows it will lose (unless it serves their agenda) but the level of opposition to the deal had been clear for weeks and was not swinging back to the prime minister. Again, faced with a difficult decision and growing opposition, May took the path of least resistance and deferred the decision until a later date. While this strategy has allowed her to survive, it's worth noting that this approach has left the country as divided as ever, and unprepared for a no-deal Brexit, despite this still being a genuine possibility.
The Sun are now reporting that there will be a full five days of debate on the Brexit agreement in the early new year before the 'meaningful' vote around Monday 14 January.
In office but not in power?
While the government managed to avoid one fight by delaying the vote, this immediately created another problem. After weeks of threats, demands and quite hostile behaviour, the ring-wing rump of the Conservative Parliamentary Party managed to summon enough letters (48 letters representing 15% of the party) to trigger a vote of confidence in May. This was the big moment but it looks like it was all a bit premature.
While the prime minister won with 200 Conservative MPs voting that they have confidence in her against 117 who do not, victory came at a high price. She won't lead the party into the 2022 General Election (but she didn't promise to stand down if one is called before this) and the size of the opposition is galling. Despite winning with 63% of the vote, Jacob Rees-Mogg, without a hint of irony, claimed that it was "a terrible result and that she must resign". While he might be hypocrite, he is not entirely wrong - there is notable precedent for a prime minister winning a vote of confidence before succumbing to their weakened position and eventually stepping aside.
While May cannot now face another vote of confidence from the Conservative Party for at least 12 months, she has lost the support of the DUP and more than half of her backbenchers. She also faces a hostile parliament that is gearing up to bring the government down. If she cannot pass her Brexit agreement, and the associated legislation, and doesn't have a domestic policy agenda, is she really in power?
New Year, New EU: What happens next?
The controversy over the Irish backstop remains the main challenge to securing the approval of parliament. However, May's attempts to secure legally binding changes to the backstop at the EU Summit over the last few days look to have failed miserably. Despite the government's best efforts to manage expectations, declaring that the prime minister does not expect immediate breakthrough on the issue, EU leaders poured cold water over her plans by rejecting "any form of renegotiation whatsoever". The summit concluded with a very frosty on-camera exchange between May and president of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker, with some commentators suggesting this is Salzburg mark II.
The Labour Party is also under pressure to force a vote of no confidence in the government, with the SNP, Lib Dems and Plaid Cymru all calling on Jeremy Corbyn to make the challenge. This is a matter of timing and Corbyn will not want to act until he is sure he has the majority he needs. The problem facing the Labour leader is that any action right now risks uniting the Conservative Party, and if he loses, he may have to back a second referendum.
The Conservatives are not the only party divided by Brexit. While most of Labour's MPs overwhelmingly support remaining in the EU, a large chunk of the Party's core vote, especially in the north, do not and a second referendum would be seen as a betrayal of their wishes. Corbyn cannot win a general election without the northern towns on board.
The reality is that we end the week in a similar situation as we started it. The government, parliament and the country are enormously divided by Brexit, whether it should happen and what it should look like. This division has created a deadlock and right now it looks like the prime minister cannot find a way through. We will have to wait until January to see whether May can get a deal that unites our divided parliament.
Daniel Cambers, deputy managing director, public affairs practice