Just last week it looked as if a path might be opening up for Theresa May. Hardliner Brexiteers seemed incapable of agreeing their own version of Britain’s departure from the EU, and as the clock ticked towards 29 March it began to look like her message of ‘Chequers or no-deal Brexit’ was beginning to resonate as the real choice facing the country.
That all came to a shuddering halt yesterday afternoon as one European leader after another lined up in Salzburg to declare the Chequers plan unacceptable. Theresa May’s strategy has fallen apart in front of our eyes, and if we are to believe the briefings coming from European capitals, the Prime Minister may have brought all this on herself.
Widespread expectation ahead of the Salzburg summit was that the EU wanted to help Theresa May. They don’t love Chequers but they recognise they have a better chance of decent deal with our current PM than with any likely successor, so they intended to encourage her and it along the way and subtly amend as they went, whilst maintaining positive public rhetoric.
But deploying her famous ‘tin ear’ that so wowed the British electorate in the general election, May turned her fellow leaders against her with a belligerent article in the German newspaper Die Welt on Wednesday and followed it up with a speech at the private dinner described as ‘aggressive’.
So where does this leave us? It is hard to see how Chequers can be rehabilitated when the EU won’t let her harden it, and her backbenchers won’t compromise any more. So two outcomes just became more likely – the hardest of no deal Brexits, and the softest of EEA options – for a temporary period at least. Either would be hugely divisive in the country. All the fudges, ducked decisions and creative ambiguities of the last two years are coming home to roost, whilst the sound of the ticking clock gets louder by the day.