Belfast Telegraph

Now shell-shocked PM must go back to drawing board

Mrs May leaves the Houses of Parliament
Mrs May leaves the Houses of Parliament
Suzanne Breen

By Suzanne Breen

The fact that one of the most underwhelming Prime Ministers in British history has just entered the record books sums up the extraordinary nature of our political times.

Theresa May is of course there for all the wrong reasons. The biggest defeat for a government in Parliament ever.

She beat the previous holder, Labour's Ramsay MacDonald, not by a narrow margin but by a country mile. The writing has of course been on the wall for Mrs May's Brexit deal for a long time. But the gloomiest prediction was that it would go down by 200 votes - anything else was dismissed as fantasy territory.

Westminster sources last night described the Prime Minister as "shell-shocked" by her 230 vote loss.

That she is not resigning and that her government will survive Jeremy Corbyn's no confidence vote in the House of Commons today makes it even more of a mess.

There will be no imminent general election. With just 72 days to Brexit, the uncertainty has actually increased. No deal, a new deal, a second referendum - the way forward is as unclear as it was before Mrs May's crushing defeat.

It was a rainbow coalition that opposed her. Those who want all varieties of Brexit and none piled in. So which way does she turn if she is to put together a credible Plan B?

Some suggest achieving parliamentary consensus via a Norway-style soft Brexit compromise with Labour. But the most logical path for the Prime Minister is to seek to bring on board Tory rebels and the DUP.

That does not involve seeking more reassurances or clarification from the EU. It means a change to the legal text and binning the backstop.

Brussels has insisted this will never happen, and it may well not be bluffing. But it - and Dublin in particular - has a lot to lose by no deal.

There is much in the Withdrawal Agreement that hardline Tory Brexiteers and the DUP like, or at least can live with. If the backstop was removed, the Prime Minister's deal would surely pass through the Commons.

A big question is whether Brussels views the scale of Mrs May's defeat as making her too wounded to do business with, or if it gives her leverage over coming weeks.

"It is categorically wrong to suggest this country could not ultimately make a success of no deal," she said yesterday. However, those close to her just don't believe she has 'no deal' in her DNA.

Yet extending Article 50 brings us into second referendum territory and Mrs May knows her party would be hammered at the polls if that happens.

She is in an unenviable position. In the short-term, it's back to the drawing board and, I suspect, mapping a way forward with her own backbench rebels and the DUP.

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