The UK's negotiating position was already weak when Theresa May walked into the council chamber at the Europa building in Brussels on Thursday. But she had one card left to play: the threat of a no-deal Brexit next Friday, with all the disruption that would cause to the UK's neighbours as well as itself. By the end of the night, that was gone too.
“All they had left was the date. Now we’ve taken that away from them,” a senior EU source said.
May’s presentation to the EU leaders and the question-and-answer session that followed persuaded them she had no chance of winning a majority for her deal at Westminster next week. So instead of coming back to Brussels next Thursday to decide whether to push the UK out of the EU 24 hours later, they drew up their own timetable for Brexit.
If May's deal fails next week, the UK will leave the EU on April 12th unless it agrees to hold European Parliament elections and seeks a longer extension to hold a general election or a second referendum. The extra two weeks are designed to give MPs time to come up with an alternative to May's deal that will command a majority, probably by changing or removing her negotiating red lines.
If Westminster must pursue new ideas for Brexit, May is singularly unsuitable to lead MPs in a new direction and her future as prime minister is in doubt
Already, Jeremy Corbyn has tabled an amendment for Monday to set aside parliamentary time next week for MPs to debate alternatives to the prime minister's deal. A cross-party group of MPs including Conservative Oliver Letwin and Labour's Yvette Cooper wants indicative votes on competing options. And business secretary Greg Clark suggested on Friday that the government would offer a free vote on indicative votes if the prime minister's deal is rejected a third time next week.
The picture was further muddied on Friday night when it emerged that May had written to MPs suggesting she might not bring her withdrawal deal back to parliament for a third time if there is not enough support for it to be passed.
If Westminster must pursue new ideas for Brexit, May is singularly unsuitable to lead MPs in a new direction and her future as prime minister is in doubt this weekend. Her disastrous televised statement on Wednesday, when she blamed MPs for having to postpone Brexit, was the last straw for many ministers and backbenchers alike.
She had already alienated chief whip Julian Smith by giving the nod to cabinet ministers that they could break a three-line whip by abstaining on a government motion. She cannot face another confidence vote in her leadership until next December, but there is a growing view at Westminster that if her Brexit deal is rejected next week, she will have to go.
The EU leaders have said that, if by April 12th the UK has not agreed to hold European Parliament elections, it must leave the EU that day
The EU's timetable does not allow enough time for a Conservative leadership contest, so May would have to hand over to a caretaker leader, preferably someone without leadership ambitions such as her de-facto deputy David Lidington. But the factionalism within the party may be too poisonous for any caretaker leader to gain the confidence of Conservative MPs.
One of the reasons behind the continuing deadlock surrounding Brexit at Westminster is that the competing factions each believes that their preferred outcome can still prevail, making them unwilling to compromise by backing the next least bad option. Hard-line Brexiteers are confident the UK can leave the EU without a deal and the EU’s new deadline of April 12th will encourage them.
Corbyn thinks his proposal for a customs union and close alignment with the single market could form the basis for a deal that could win a majority. And those who favour Common Market 2.0, remaining in both the customs union and the single market, believe their plan can secure cross-party majority support.
But advocates for a second referendum, including the SNP, the Liberal Democrats, the Independent Group, many Labour MPs and a few Conservatives, still believe they can reverse Brexit. They will be emboldened by what is expected to be a huge demonstration in London on Saturday calling for a second vote and by the three million people who have signed a petition demanding that Brexit should be cancelled by revoking article 50.
The EU leaders have said that, if by April 12th the UK has not agreed to hold European Parliament elections, it must leave the EU that day. But if there appeared to be some progress at Westminster towards finding an alternative to May’s deal, would the EU really bundle Britain out the door right away?
Senior EU officials say there would be no question of offering a further extension to May 22nd, just before the European elections. But a short extension of two or three weeks would mean that, with Mrs May’s deal dead and no prospect of remaining in the EU for long enough to hold a second referendum, MPs would face a straight choice between a soft Brexit and no deal.