Is it really Theresa May's deal or no deal?

Theresa May is to make an appeal to EU leaders for a Brexit extension. Credit: House of Commons/PA

Will MPs next week really face a simple choice, between May's deal and a no-deal Brexit, or is that a bluff?

Such a binary choice was what a dozen cabinet ministers - those who hate the idea that the Brexit delay could be nine months or more - were sure they heard from the PM when they met her at lunchtime today (they included the Brexiter veterans, such as Penny Mordaunt, Liam Fox and Andrea Leadsom, as well as the recent converts, Sajid Javid, Jeremy Hunt and Matt Hancock).

And it is what the EU president Donald Tusk seemed to be saying in his public statement today.

For what it's worth, I have investigated as far as I can what the truth of whether there is a third way, with my sources in EU capitals and Brussels.

And the consensus is that the only possible third way would be a "new political process" that would come from a much more aggressive revolt against the Prime Minister by backbenchers of all parties - in which an overwhelming majority coalesced around an alternative route forward that the EU could actually accept.

As I said earlier, that might be the so-called Common Market 2.0 - which is a hybrid of a customs arrangement and single market membership.

But truthfully it is very challenging to see how the supporters of that softest of Brexits could demonstrate beyond reasonable doubt for EU leaders in the days remaining before 29 March Brexit day that MPs would rally to it in sufficient numbers, to expedite a managed withdrawal from the EU.

Theresa May and EU Council President Donald Tusk. Credit: Stefan Rousseau/PA

So MPs will very likely face an agonising decision in a matter of a small number of days: back a version of Brexit, May's, that many see as deeply flawed, or risk an exit that could undermine security and prosperity, for months and maybe much longer.

At this time of profound and troubling uncertainty concerning the most important economic, diplomatic and political decision this country has taken for generations, I have just one prediction: the reputations of parliament, Whitehall and government will be harmed for many years by the perception that the UK is being bullied by the prime minister into choosing a Brexit that many see as unspeakable because the alternative (to rework Wilde) is wholly uneatable.

This is not how a nation of the UK's proud history and institutional strengths is supposed to decide even what biscuits to have with our tea, let alone how to configure how we run almost everything that matters.