She bravely takes the blows but ‘Rocky’ May is really on the ropes


One of the more improbable lines doing the rounds at the moment in the House of Commons tea room is that when it comes to making “Brexit, the Movie” Theresa May will have to be played by Sylvester Stallone.

The parallel is with the various Rocky movies where, after 12 rounds of absorbing punches that all sound like someone slamming a garage door, he somehow manages to climb off the canvas to deliver the knockout blow and to retain the title.

A small corner of my heart wants to believe it is possible for May. You would need a heart of granite not to harbour some admiration for the way in which the prime minister hangs on in there grimly. My head, however, tells me something different. This is Westminster not Hollywood and a happy ending looks ever more unlikely.

The last Labour government lost only four votes in 13 years. Last night the Conservatives lost three. The second of these three was a pointless loss. The strategy of offering up an amendment to the contempt motion was a sound one but ultimately it failed.

Then to contest the main motion (and to lose by a much wider margin) demonstrated the extent to which this government has lost its touch. Ironically, had it had the same enthusiasm for contesting votes when the loyal address calling for the publication of the attorney general’s advice was passed then it might not have put itself in this position.

The government whips allow votes to go uncontested when it matters but then they are prepared to die in a ditch when the battle is already lost. The secret to effective whipping is knowing which fights to pick.

So where does it all go from here?

For the last two years the prime minister has pursued this negotiation trying to hold the two irreconcilable halves of her party together. She has kicked the can down the road by promising different things to different people at different times and hope, like Mr Micawber, that something would turn up. It has not and it is not going to.

We know from Keir Starmer that if the deal goes down then the Labour Party will table a motion of no confidence in the government. This is one of the few things that may stop the Conservatives from self-cannibalising, if only for a day. The government will almost certainly win.

At that point Jeremy Corbyn will be forced to concede that the general election that he claims to want (but which most of his MPs privately dread) is not going to happen.

Will he then finally meet the expectations of his own party activists and embrace a People’s Vote as the only way to get past the failure of parliament to resolve the Brexit conundrum? Probably yes, if only to maintain his image rather than to pursue his conviction.

For the sake of our country I hope so. Who knows, second time around, he may even be prepared to take part in the campaign.

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