Time has come for Mrs May to pick sides

Prime Minister Theresa May speaks during Prime Minister's Questions in the House of Commons Photo: P

Prime Minister Theresa May speaks during Prime Minister's Questions in the House of Commons Photo: PA - Credit: PA Wire/PA Images

Theresa May has become the master of the fudge.

Theresa May has become the master of the fudge.

She has put off time and again the decisions that will truly shape Brexit. Some people have called this 'madness' but there is some method to it.

The fudge cannot go on though – this is crunch time.

It has been a wild week in Westminster. By Monday evening the government was quietly confident it had the numbers required to get the Brexit Bill through and dump it back in the House of Lords.

There were still nerves of course but the whips believed they had done enough – just.

Then a little-known junior minister quit spectacularly and said he would be voting against the government on key aspects of the Bill and suddenly all hell broke loose.

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Phillip Lee's bombshell came out of the clear blue sky and for a time appeared to tip the balance in the favour of the Tory rebels led by former attorney general Dominic Grieve.

It was his clever, 11th-hour amendment that put wind in the sails of the rebels. He was demanding three key elements should be inserted into the Bill:

• Within seven days of the statement on the final Brexit deal MPs would have to vote on a motion approving the government's approach;

• If there is no agreement by November 30, the government would have to give MPs the chance to vote on a motion saying what should happen next;

• If there is no agreement by February 15, 2019, the government have to bring the matter to the Commons within five days.

These three clauses would have taken the ultimate power over the final Brexit deal away from the executive and to parliament. The rebels – and the opposition parties – believe that MPs should be more involved in the process.

However the government argued that this would give the European Union the upper hand during negotiations and would compel Brussels to offer the worst possible deal. And Brexiteers feared it took the possibility of the UK walking away from negotiations off the table.

Most MPs agree no deal to be the very worst option for the UK – but the threat does give the UK a nuclear option that will seriously worry Brussels.

Taking that option away is a definite red line for Jacob Rees-Mogg and his merry band of Brexiteers the European Research Group.

So Mrs May was faced with a difficult decision: defeat or concession? But, it appears, she decided against both and instead went for her tried-and-tested favourite tactic – the fudge.

As the amendment over the meaningful final vote was debated the whips worked feverishly and in a last-gasp attempt to quell the revolt gathered 14 MPs and put them in front of the prime minister.

Exactly what was said in that meeting is a point of some conjecture but there was clearly enough persuasion on the part of the prime minister to avoid a government defeat.

Afterwards the rebels claimed the government had agreed to put Mr Grieve's first two points straight in the Bill when it went back to the Lords and the third point would be discussed.

Remainers claimed victory and furious Brexiteers gathered to discuss what could be done. There were even whispers by some of the more hard-line Leavers that now was the time to challenge Mrs May.

But the Remainers' joy was short-lived as the government began to back-pedal.

Now comes the crunch. If it is the rebels that have been double-crossed they will never trust Mrs May again. And she faces the real danger of a similar amendment being insert again in the Lords and then being defeated when it comes back to the Commons.

If it is the Brexiteers who have been lied to Mrs May faces the real possibility of being toppled.

Surely she cannot try another fudge?

The moment has come for Mrs May to speak openly and honestly about her plans for Brexit – if not to the public then to her own party. The divisions over Europe within the Conservative ranks have rumbled on for decades – and will continue. But Mrs May needs to face one of the two sides down. She cannot continue to lead by telling everyone they will get what they want.

She is a weak leader because she has no majority. But she must now show some strength for the sake of the Brexit process if nothing else. Clarity is sadly lacking and that is damaging to the UK – economically and otherwise. Mrs May must finally pick her battle.