Could a general election be looming? It might seem unlikely. Last time Theresa May dissolved parliament, she had a 24-point lead and higher personal ratings than Margaret Thatcher or Tony Blair in their pomp. Labour had suffered one of its worst postwar defeats just two years earlier. And yet the Conservatives lost their majority. This time round, Labour are ahead in several polls. Jeremy Corbyn’s team, though tired after their journey from the political wilderness to the epicentre of the greatest political upheaval since the war, will begin an election with far more experience than last time. As senior Conservative officials have pointed out to the Sun, 40 Tory seats are held by a margin of less than 5%, with Labour in second place in 35 of them. How would voters view the fourth national vote in five years (the fifth for Scottish voters)? Brenda from Bristol would be considerably more irate this time. Would Tory MPs really let May take their party into an election, just weeks after 117 of them voted against her leadership? Are they not uniquely fearful of a Corbyn government, which they rightly judge to be a totally different prospect to a “normal” Labour administration? And yet. May’s Brexit deal has suffered the biggest defeat in the history of British democracy.
If she halved the margin of defeat in another vote, it would still find a place in the five worst parliamentary routs. How on earth is she supposed to turn a 230-vote deficit into a victory of at least one, in a matter of weeks? She won’t get a meaningful concession on the backstop from the EU: how will she get the DUP, all the hard Brexiteers of the Tory ERG and Tory remainers on side? Jacob Rees-Mogg is showing signs of surrender to May, but a hardcore would not follow him. If she is expecting mass Labour defections to back her deal, disappointment beckons. May is in an impossible situation of her own making.
What of the other options? Even if the Labour leadership instructed its MPs to back a second referendum – which would immediately trigger mass resignations from its frontbench – many in leave seats would refuse to do so, as would the vast majority of Tory MPs. The numbers simply aren’t there; and indeed as pre-eminent British psephologist John Curtice points out, there is no public clamour for another vote. “No deal” is not going to happen – May would face resignations, even Tory MPs abandoning the whip, if she seriously attempted it – and next week, Yvette Cooper’s amendment to block it is likely to pass.
So what’s left? In our tumultuous times, things can change dramatically: perhaps parliamentary arithmetic will swing dramatically behind May, perhaps a surge in support of a second referendum will happen, perhaps a majority of MPs will somehow back a sensible compromise such as Norway plus. Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps.