Britain will remain in the EU until the end of October this year, but diminished in power and status, with a review of its conduct set for the end of June. It is the marital equivalent of being sent to sleep in the spare bedroom, if not quite the garden shed.
Wednesday night’s humiliation, when 27 other nations decided our fate – a taster of Norway-plus or common market 2.0, where decisions are made about the UK without our presence – exposes the lies of the Brexiters and the impossibility of a strong and stable position outside the EU. History will recall that Britons did not value their power in Europe until they lost it. Theresa May, too, was humiliated once again but it does not cut deeply since she appears to feels no shame. She remains convinced she was and is right: that blame is to be found with her detractors and not with her deal or leadership.
The question that remains unanswered is: now what? Few EU leaders were convinced that the process of cross-party talks would lead to a deal that parliament could support, and rightly so. It is not in Jeremy Corbyn’s interest to rescue the Conservative party from a crisis of their own making. And for May, any deal acceptable to the Labour party would cause a perhaps permanent split in her own party, not seen since 1846 and the repeal of the corn laws.
That’s why these negotiations were never offered in good faith – if they had been, the hardline Brexiters in the cabinet would have already resigned. Cabinet ministers from Jeremy Hunt to Geoffrey Cox seem unable to hide their duplicitous intentions, all but promising that a future Tory leader would rip up any deal.
But none of this matters. Even if May and Corbyn were to reach a deal for a soft Brexit without a confirmatory public vote, then the bulk of Tory MPs would vote against it on substance and Labour MPs would vote it down on process. If May were to attempt to impose a three-line whip for a people’s vote, her government would shatter.
If they were to conclude a deal, the party leaders could face a situation where the only MPs voting for it were on both frontbenches. It is the path pursued by desperate aides to the prime minister, but with little traction either in parliament, in the Tory party or in the labour movement.
So it is a matter of when, not if, the talks between May and Corbyn break up. It seems quite likely that both sides will allow the fiction to continue during parliamentary recess so everyone can have a break (and who could blame them?). Indeed, both sides will remain around the table to avoid being seen to leave it first. Expect the blame game to get into full swing now.
Yet the reality is that there is no parliamentary majority for any Brexit outcome – from no-deal through every variation of a Brexit deal all the way to revocation – meaning that the only options left are processes. While the prime minister may attempt another round of indicative votes and yet another attempt to get her deal through, it will not succeed.
Yet despite serving no useful purpose by remaining in office, May refuses to leave. If she were to resign as prime minister at the end of June she would avoid the embarrassment of serving a shorter time in office than Gordon Brown while giving her successor time to regroup over the summer.
But be under no illusions: a new Tory leader and prime minister will not bring with them a fresh solution to the crisis. The parliamentary arithmetic will be unaltered.
Whether now or in a few months hence, parliament will be confronted with a choice: either refer the Brexit question back to the people for their final say, or hold a general election to deliver a parliament capable of making a decision.
In any general election, the Labour party will offer a minimum of a renegotiation and a referendum or even a promise to revoke article 50. When confronted with a choice between a referendum under a Conservative government or a referendum following a Labour election victory, enough Tory MPs may conclude that supporting a public vote now is the lesser of two evils.
Either way, May’s premiership is doomed – and so may be the project to rip this country out of the EU. After tonight, Britain is down, but not out.
By Tom Kibasi