PETER OBORNE: May’s premiership now stands at two minutes to midnight

PETER OBORNE: May’s premiership now stands at two minutes to midnight… if a vote on her deal fails yet again, she’s finished

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The Queen addresses the nation once a year on Christmas Day. Otherwise, it’s considered distinctly un-British for national leaders to go on TV and directly address the population.

Dictators such as Vladimir Putin do it all the time. So do American presidents.

Donald Trump, needless to say, does it a lot. He’s keen to share his opinions with voters.

But this sort of thing doesn’t normally happen in this country outside of general elections.

British prime ministers usually only appear on the airwaves at primetime when there’s a national emergency. For example, Neville Chamberlain announcing the declaration of war over the wireless on September 3, 1939.

Tony Blair did it on the eve of the Iraq War. Britain, he said, ‘has never been a nation to hide at the back’.


Prime Minister Theresa May making a statement about Brexit in Downing Street last night. She confirmed Britain will not be leaving the EU on March 29 and Mrs May will seek an extension on the the UK’s Brexit withdrawal until June 30

Brutal

Mrs May last night made her own exception to this rule — appearing on the nation’s TV screens as Britons were happily watching Coronation Street or Holby City.

The rumours that something unusual was in the offing began to circulate early in the afternoon. Not long after, it was an open secret that Mrs May was going to play what in brutal truth was one of her very last cards.

Remember that Mrs May’s premiership is hanging by a thread. She’s exhausted. Having been repeatedly humiliated, she is fighting for her political life.

But at least she’s still afloat, just about, and last night she went over the heads of the nation’s MPs.

We may not be used to this sort of conduct in a parliamentary democracy. But Mrs May is a desperate politician trapped in the Last Chance Saloon.

Her Brexit withdrawal plan has been voted down twice by Parliament, each time by a massive majority. Mrs May knows that her plan will be dead and she finished if it fails again next week.

She framed the country’s do-or-die Brexit dilemma as a war between Parliament and the voters.

And, crucially, she told voters: ‘I am on your side.’


In the Commons at PMQs yesterday (pictured) Theresa May condemned MPs for ‘navel gazing’ over Europe and said their refusal to pass the deal was to blame for delay 

Which begged the question — which voters? Those 17.4 million who made it clear 1,001 days ago that they wanted Britain to leave the EU? Or Remainers still appalled by the idea of us leaving the biggest trading bloc in the world? Or those — increasing in number, I’d wager — caught somewhere in between?

Certainly, the PM appealed to a widespread feeling across the nation that wishes Brexit will just go away. Let’s get it done. Let’s get it over with. Let’s get on with the real business of government. It’s overshadowed all our lives for much, much too long.

And she was also sending out the strongest possible signal to the Right-wing rebels in her own party: vote for my deal or risk losing Brexit altogether.

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Will her performance be enough?

Mrs May is making the calculation that her televised appeal will put pressure on the hardcore of European Research Group MPs to abandon their principled opposition to her deal.

Maybe her gamble will pay off.

It’s worth assessing what is most likely to happen over the next few days.

Mrs May flies to meet other European leaders in Brussels today to seek approval for a short extension of Article 50 until June 30.

Perhaps the curmudgeons will agree. Whatever the case, Brussels has Britain over a barrel. The Prime Minister is stuck in a horrible Catch 22. European Council President Donald Tusk warned yesterday that Britain could delay departure — but only if Parliament agrees Mrs May’s Withdrawal Agreement.


Donald Tusk made a short speech in Brussels yesterday after speaking to Theresa May by telephone and following talks with EU leaders over the past week

But Commons Speaker John Bercow won’t allow another vote unless the Withdrawal Agreement is changed. Facing this nightmare, it’s no wonder she made her desperate plea in front of the cameras.

Successful in her mission to Brussels or not, Mrs May would then have to return to London for an intense weekend of lobbying the Tory Brexiteer rebels.

These wily folk know Mrs May has almost run out of rope. Within minutes of her TV address, many were fulminating about her performance and making it clear that they will continue to block her.

Yesterday, she was forced into yet another U-turn when she reneged on her promise (made 108 times) that Britain will leave the EU on March 29.

Worrying

Her reputation for flip-flops is becoming worrying. She ruled out holding a General Election in 2017. Then called one. She promised to put her withdrawal deal to MPs last December. Then delayed it.

Many of her own MPs fear she can no longer be relied on to keep her word.

This puts her Cabinet colleagues in an awkward position. Take, for example, her loyal ‘deputy’, David Lidington.

Last week he said ‘a short, one-off extension’ would be ‘downright reckless’. Yesterday, he was left gasping as he watched his boss ask for one. Meanwhile, there were briefings on Monday that the PM was ready to dump her close Brexit adviser Olly Robbins. Those, too, were deeply unedifying — and, so far, that has not happened.

I am guessing that Bercow will agree next week to allow Parliament to vote one last time on the ‘meaningful vote’. Despite his guidance on Monday that he was minded not to allow her to come back for a third vote, he can hardly turn her down now.

Chaos

She will have achieved a substantial change that Bercow demanded.

Think of the latest developments like this: you’re ready to exchange contracts on a house on March 29 and you change the date at the last minute to June.

Is that a substantial change? You bet it is. Even rabid Europhile Bercow can surely spot that.

So, at last, there is a chance that Mrs May will prevail and that Britain will — finally — exit the EU.

If not, I fear Britain would enter a further period of chaos.

As matters stand, there are three potential Brexit options.

First, Speaker allows a third Brexit vote next week, and the Commons votes in support of the Prime Minister’s withdrawal deal.

If so, Brexit would take place in May.

If not, Britain heads towards the second scenario — a No Deal Brexit.

Finally, the House of Commons could seize control at the very last moment.

In 1947, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists created the Doomsday Clock, a measure that warns the public about how close we are to destroying our own world.

The clock is currently set at two minutes to midnight. Time is very nearly up.

That’s exactly how Brexit feels. We are at two minutes to midnight.

No wonder she chose to address the nation. Now let’s see how MPs respond. 

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