Theresa May’s eleventh-hour mission to Strasbourg on Monday evening was the culmination of a week of political brinkmanship, with her Brexit deal and potentially her premiership on the line.
The British prime minister’s flight to meet Jean-Claude Juncker, European Commission president, came after a brutal set of negotiations in Brussels that saw hopes of a deal rise, fade, and then return.
“It has been a tough week,” admitted one Downing Street aide on Monday morning, as talks stalled.
But, with Mrs May facing a crushing Commons defeat on her deal and with all escape routes apparently closed, she decided to make one last push ahead of Tuesday’s vote by MPs.
After more positive talks with Mr Juncker at lunchtime on Monday, Mrs May headed for Westminster Abbey to mark Commonwealth Day where she read from Corinthians 12: 14-26, a passage that might have almost read as a plea for help from Brussels.
The prime minister of a country that is about to leave the European club said: “The body does not consist of one member but of many. If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honoured, all rejoice together with it.”
Shortly after leaving the abbey she was en route to Strasbourg.
A government statement on Brexit was also scheduled to be made on Monday night, leading many MPs to conclude that a deal had already been thrashed out with Brussels.
The package being discussed would contain a legally binding commitment that neither side would seek to indefinitely keep the backstop, the withdrawal agreement’s most contentious measure, which aims to avoid a hard border with Ireland through a “temporary” customs union. Mrs May was also planning to attach a unilateral declaration setting out why Britain sees the backstop as strictly temporary.
Any last-minute deal would contrast starkly with the low point of last week’s negotiations, when Geoffrey Cox, Britain’s attorney-general, arrived in Brussels with a set of demands that were deemed unacceptable by Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator. The talks subsequently collapsed.
Mr Cox, whose declaratory courtroom style did not sit easily in technocratic Brussels, had demanded that Britain should have a unilateral exit mechanism from the backstop.
The attorney-general, formerly a highly paid commercial lawyer, was told by Mr Barnier that he did not understand: the whole point of the backstop was to prevent such a rupture taking place and creating friction at the border.
Olly Robbins, Mrs May’s chief Brexit negotiator, remained in Brussels to pick up the pieces and over the following days he and Sabine Weyand, Mr Barnier’s deputy, worked on a legal form of words that might just about satisfy Mr Cox and Tory Eurosceptic MPs.
On Saturday night, Mr Robbins reported to Downing Street that a draft agreement was in place that could provide Britain with the assurances it needed that the backstop could not become permanent. Mrs May approved the closing of negotiations.
Angela Merkel on Monday confirmed that a new offer had been put on the table. “And now of course it’s up to Britain to respond to this offer,” the German chancellor told reporters in Berlin.
But when Mrs May presented the draft agreement to Mr Cox and other senior cabinet ministers on Sunday — including chief whip Julian Smith — it was blocked. The prime minister was told it would not be enough to win over the more than 100 Tory Eurosceptic MPs whose support Mrs May needs.
For her to succeed in Tuesday’s vote, Mr Cox would have to change his previous legal advice to MPs that the backstop could leave Britain trapped in the customs union. Mr Cox told Mrs May the draft agreed in Brussels would not allow him to change his mind.
Mr Cox told the Mail on Sunday: “My professional reputation is far more important to me than my reputation as a politician.”
A despairing Mrs May, who had planned to travel to Brussels on Sunday to sign off the deal with Mr Juncker, instead called the European Commission chief late in the evening to say the deal was off.
“We went as far as possible with regard to additional assurances,” said one EU diplomat. “Despite these positive efforts, the political situation in London over the weekend was such that Mrs May failed to convince her government to move forward.” The finger of blame was pointed firmly towards Mr Cox.
With the talks deadlocked, Mr Barnier briefed EU27 ambassadors in Brussels on Monday, describing the increasingly “confrontational” mood with the British and warning that any House of Commons vote was destined to fail.
The commission began ramping up its no-deal planning, with talk of a short extension of the Article 50 exit process until May 24.
Mrs May slept on her dilemma and woke up on Monday to the conclusion that she was trapped and had little choice but to make one more push.
The alternative — a political manoeuvre where she offered MPs a vote on the deal she would like to secure in Brussels, not the deal that was on the table — was rebuffed strongly in Brussels and by Tory Eurosceptics.
The attorney-general will provide updated legal advice to MPs on Tuesday. If Mrs May can convince Mr Cox of the merits of a last-minute deal with Mr Juncker, then she hopes that Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist party and then many Tory MPs would fall in behind it.
Even Mrs May’s most optimistic supporters believe that any concessions agreed with the EU might only reduce the scale of her defeat — perhaps to 50.
That might be seen as progress, a sign that Mrs May at last had some momentum and could perhaps — even at this late hour — push her deal through, or at least provide the groundwork for a third push to win a meaningful vote in the Commons later this month. But in Brussels this week’s talks were seen as “the last shot”.