What was the point of delaying the meaningful vote on the Brexit deal? That was the inevitable question prompted by Theresa Mays appearance on this mornings Andrew Marr Show, which saw the Prime Minister return to characteristically evasive form after the Christmas break.
May insisted that there was no alternative to the withdrawal agreement, which, with no movement from Tory rebels, the DUP or Labour leadership over the winter recess, is still on course for a significant defeat when it comes before the Commons a week tomorrow. She stressed – as her cabinet did minutes before the vote was postponed last month – that the vote would actually take place, but did not rule out holding a second.
Mays testy answer to the question of whether she was seeking to renegotiate the Irish backstop – which has set her against the 10 MPs of the DUP and dozens more Conservative Eurosceptics – suggests she will need to do just that. The Prime Minister did no more than restate an ambition which, as far as those MPs whose support she needs are concerned, simply does not go for enough. May is still seeking unspecified “assurances” from the EU that the backstop will be temporary, while the DUP will accept nothing less than changes to the text of the withdrawal agreement itself – something Brussels will not offer.
Until either of those facts changes, a defeat is inevitable. Indeed, the case May made most effectively was for MPs to inflict one. Her refusal to rule out facilitating a second referendum or endorsing a no-deal scenario lowers the stakes for those who might have otherwise been convinced to back her deal as the least bad option. The Prime Ministers refusal to be drawn on hypotheticals is encouraging MPs with wildly different aims to see the defeat of the withdrawal agreement as a staging post on the road to their preferred Brexits – or lack thereof.
This, of course, was the situation the Prime Minister found herself in before the first delay to the vote last month. The only difference now is that the time she has to chart a course out of the “uncharted waters” a defeat will plunge MPs into, is much more limited. That might yet be a potent weapon in the event of a second vote – but it comes at the price of a much greater risk of no-deal.
Patrick Maguire is the New Statesman's political correspondent.