Theresa May’s attendance at the EU summit in Brussels on Thursday was supposed to be the final appearance of a British Prime Minister in the European club before Brexit took place next week.
But after months of wrangling with lawmakers, resulting in a failure to get her deal approved by parliament, May will instead ask her fellow EU leaders for three more months to get Brexit completed.
It is a situation that should have left May, the prime minister who took the job claiming only she could provide the fortitude and resilience to see Brexit through, feeling humbled and contrite. And yet on Wednesday night she delivered an extraordinary statement in which she tried to shake off blame for the collapse in her Brexit plans – and pin responsibility on British lawmakers.
Appealing directly to the British public through a televised statement from Downing Street, May said she was on the side of the people versus Parliament.
“You, the public, have had enough. You are tired of the infighting, tired of the political games and the arcane procedural rows, tired of MPs talking about nothing else but Brexit when you have real concerns about our children’s schools, our National Health Service, knife crime,” she said.
“You want this stage of the Brexit process to be over and done with … So far parliament has done everything possible to avoid making a choice … You just want us to get on with it and that is what I am determined to do.”
May’s decision to create a dividing line between the people and parliament – at a time when lawmakers have faced death threats and abuse over Brexit – enraged politicians on all sides last night, and justifiably so. From someone whose authority is already weakened by her failure to seal the Brexit deal, these comments could be her undoing.
For a start, they have already, apparently, cost her deal yet more votes in the House of Commons, when she has been trying to reverse a three-figure defeat.
Lisa Nandy, an opposition Labour lawmaker who was understood to have been on the verge of backing May’s deal, tweeted: “The Prime Minister’s statement was disgraceful. Pitting Parliament against the people in the current environment is dangerous and reckless … she’s attacking the MPs whose votes she needs. It will have cost her support.”
Nandy later said on ITV’s Peston show: “There’s absolutely no chance she is going to win over MPs in sufficient numbers after that statement. It was an attack on liberal democracy itself … I will not support a government that takes such a reckless approach.”
Fellow Labour lawmaker Wes Streeting went further, suggesting the Prime Minister had endangered the lives of UK politicians.
“I’ve thought long and hard before saying this, but (May) knows that MPs across the House are subjected to death threats – some very credible,” he wrote on Twitter. “Her speech was incendiary and irresponsible. If any harm comes to any of us, she will have to accept her share of responsibility.”
Independent MP and a former Tory minister under May, Anna Soubry, described it as the “most dishonest and divisive statement from any Prime Minister.”
The widespread outrage shows how, once again, May’s political tactics have backfired.
The Prime Minister wanted to show increasingly impatient EU leaders that she was taking control of Brexit. Of course, Brexit has been in her gift all along – it is her refusal to allow Parliament to vote on any alternative plans that has led to the stalemate in which she now finds herself. But it is a stalemate that has left no one in overall control – neither the PM, nor parliament, and not even the European Union.
For their part, EU chiefs are showing signs of maximum exasperation with May and her administration.
Charles Grant, director of the Centre for European Reform, said there is an escalating frustration in Brussels with the UK’s “incompetent political class and untrustworthy government – a growing feeling … that the UK should just get out asap, lest it pollute the EU system with its weird politics.”
After receiving a letter from May asking for a short extension to Brexit – that would not go beyond June 30, three months on from the original departure date – European Council president Donald Tusk yesterday said he thought EU leaders would agree to it.
But with one proviso: that UK lawmakers backed May’s Brexit deal next week, at the third time of asking.
The problem with this is that John Bercow, the Speaker of the House of Commons, has blocked the government from bringing back the deal for a third time unless it is radically changed.
As EU leaders now try to wrest control of Brexit back from the UK, the simple truth is that no organization or person is able to take control of the process, and a boat being rowed in three different directions isn’t likely to go anywhere and might capsize.
Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated French President Emmanuel Macron's stance on a Brexit delay. Macron has yet to make a decision on the extension request from Britain's Theresa May.