The clock is ticking for more than just Brexit. The two main party leaders are now in a face-off over who emerges as saint or sinner.
Theresa May is clinging on to her job and trying to prevent her party from falling apart. As for Jeremy Corbyn, he faces either being seen to save the Prime Minister by throwing his and his party’s weight behind securing a deal, or taking a big share of the blame for forcing the UK out of the EU without a deal.
The talks now taking place between two teams at least buy some time for the Government to regroup and rethink. In this political dance macabre there are a number of scenarios.
First, that Number 10 no longer has a plan and is stalling for time to think what to do next.
Secondly, it may be assuming that Mr Corbyn won’t be constructive and the talks fall apart, so the PM can suggest we either leave with “No Deal” or back her Withdrawal Agreement – frightening enough Labour rebels into backing her “deal”.
Thirdly, the Prime Minister’s team may be assuming Mr Corbyn will be constructive and will help create a compromise deal which will go through on whipped Conservative and Labour votes with the ERG and DUP made irrelevant.
A fourth option is that Mr Corbyn will be constructive and can agree to formulate two deals – Mrs May’s existing deal and her deal plus a Customs Union (which would be known as Corbyn’s deal) – but agree a procedure to have them both voted for in the House of Commons. The ERG and DUP will then have to back her deal or abstain.
A final assumption must be that Mr Corbyn is not constructive and the PM genuinely opts for no deal.
Of course Number 10 has a plan. Having shown a willingness to give up every red line on the Customs Union, Single Market, European Court of Justice oversight, freedom of movement, refusing a second referendum and leaving on 29 March, we can see that the only thing that now matters is survival of Theresa May’s premiership at all costs. It has been her shamelessness in betraying every promise she made that has brought her to this moment, so betraying her party’s very survival by seeking an extension to craft a new version of her deal is a price she is willing to pay.
Her statement made clear that anything agreed with Mr Corbyn and herself must be an addition to her Withdrawal Agreement. It cannot be replaced, it can only be added to (which, of course, would clear Speaker John Bercow’s insistence that the motion must be substantially different from previous motions).
Mrs May has now said on a number of occasions that she will not allow the UK to leave without a deal. The only reason there is any lingering possibility it might happen under her watch is the utter incompetence of her ministry and the fact that she has broken so many promises in the past. It would be truly ironic if she were to break that one too.
If Mr Corbyn is helpful, but is not too demanding, possibly settling for only the addition of Customs Union membership, then the deal will sail through. There are enough votes to be whipped that could win the day. Mrs May would get her deal, the EU would happily acquiesce (because it would get what it really wants – the UK bound to the EU without a say) and Mr Corbyn would look the saviour.
But to what benefit of Corbyn? He doesn’t want to be a saint, he wants to be prime minister – and he needs a general election to achieve this.
A victorious Theresa May would seek to carry on, claiming she had persevered against all odds, shown resilience, fortitude, yada, yada – we can all write the script. On what grounds would Mr Corbyn bring a motion of no confidence? It would surely look churlish in the public eye, in that he had agreed a deal with the Prime Minister but now wanted to bring her down. Likewise, could the DUP withdraw confidence and supply when there was nothing they could do to stop the new settlement but might simply swap May for Corbyn? Would their bluff not be called?
If Mr Corbyn is helpful but is demanding of not just a Customs Union but a referendum at a later date then Mrs May can put the two versions of a deal to Parliament, putting the one that achieves consent to the European Council meeting on the 10 April. Either option would win acceptance from the EU with no need to hold elections for the European Parliament. Again though, Mrs May would seek to carry on – with Mr Corbyn struggling to find grounds to force a general election.
Or maybe Mr Corbyn sees the trap of supposed “engagement” and is not constructive at all. Mrs May cannot then get her Withdrawal Agreement passed and has to accept leaving without a deal. As stated previously, this is highly unlikely. Mrs May fears being blamed for any of the grand scares being put to her by her civil servants. No, she would seek a long extension from the EU and take her chances with Tory Party outrage.
The clock is ticking for Brexit, but it is ticking for Mr Corbyn, too. Due to be 70 next month, if the Labour leader cannot force a general election soon, will his party want him to still be at the helm when it eventually comes in 2022?