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The PM’s Brexit plan in two words: 'Tick tock'

Is the PM running down the clock?

The prime minister’s plans B, C , D and E are all the same: run the clock as close as possible to 29 March, Brexit Day, so that enough of the critics to her Brexit plan blink at the risk of either crashing out with no deal or seeing Brexit cancelled such that it passes at the last.

In two words, the strategy is “tick tock”.

Sunday’s conference-call cabinet meeting was a masterclass in Theresa May as bulldozer and ministers “sitting back”, according to one of them.

She outlined as her preferred course the only approach that stands a chance of keeping her party together, which I’ve been reporting on for days – namely putting all her effort into persuading the EU to amend the widely hated backstop so that it could become less toxic to her Tory Brexiter critics and Northern Ireland’s 10 DUP MPs, her bulwark against total incapacity to govern.

The attraction of this approach to her is that – unlike adopting a Brexit that could woo Labour MPs to vote for her Brexit plan – it would not cleave her party in two.

The flaws are equally obvious.

Theresa May attended church before returning to Brexit business with a conference call with Cabinet on Sunday. Credit: PA

First there is little prospect right now that the EU and the Republic of Ireland will move enough – as my contacts with representatives of EU27 governments make crystal clear.

Their view is that if the UK could commit to staying in the customs union forever, then the backstop could more easily be cast as a temporary bridge.

But of course the PM cannot commit to such, because the moment she would do that would be the moment 100 odd of her MPs would resign from the party.

Second it is by no means clear that the PM has the votes even if all the DUP and each of the backstop sceptics were to vote with her, because there are both Brexiter and Remainer Tory MPs who hate her deal for reasons other than the backstop – most importantly that £39bn is being handed over in a divorce payment for an uncertain long-term trading and security relationship with the EU.

Theresa May would trigger mass resignations from her party if she committed to staying in the customs union. Credit: PA

So we are in a place which is profoundly unsettling to business, trade unions, many British people, and even members of the PM's own government – namely there will be another government-led Brexit-negotiating process that could get us nowhere nearer settling our Brexit future.

This new leg of potentially pointless process starts Monday afternoon, when the PM will spell out her revised route to a deal in the form of a motion, that will then be amended by backbenchers.

There will then be votes on the amendments – the important ones probably having the effect of coercing the PM to endeavour to rule out a no-deal Brexit – on Tuesday week, 29 January.

Cross-border arrangements between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland are still to be determined. Credit: PA

An acceleration of talks with the EU will follow, and another “meaningful” (or potentially “meaningless”) vote on a tweaked version of the PM's Brexit plan in mid February.

By which point we will be a month from the due date for exiting the EU, and if parliament were to reject her deal we may be no nearer knowing how and even whether we are actually leaving the EU.

"The world is laughing at us," a minister said to me. "And for some reason the PM doesn’t seem bothered."