Theresa May's Last, Desperate Gasp to Get Her Brexit Deal Through

She's on the verge of a historic defeat, but the Prime Minister gave it all she's got in a remarkably flat speech in Stoke.
Simon Childs
London, GB
Theresa May
Theresa May addresses Parliament on Monday (Source: Parliamentlive.TV)

It must be strange to work somewhere that's used as a backdrop for political speeches. Today, Theresa May made a last ditch attempt to save her doomed Brexit deal by giving a speech at a pottery factory in Stoke, amid pallets of precarious-looking stacked crockery.

There you are, a worker at Portmeirion pottery factory, and one January Monday you get an all-staff announcement that the Prime Minister is going to use your place of work as a sort of rhetorically loaded prop to sell a crappy Brexit deal. Presumably it was supposed to conjure ideas of flourishing industry and a deal that works for the ordinary worker – perhaps with some quite overt and relatable flourishes in the speech to ram that point home.


But I couldn't really tell you if that was the aim, to be honest. This was one of her last gasp opportunities to capture the imaginations of the nation and really speak to people, but other than the fact she occasionally name dropped "Stoke" it might as well have been green-screened. It was the kind of flat plea that could have been given at any time, in any place over the last few months.

Which is ironic, because the setting was a gift to anyone who’s not on the same side as the PM – i.e. nearly everyone – and duly a press release with the subject line "PM talking bull in a China shop" arrived in inboxes. As if that wasn’t enough, the factory was soon revealed to be one that had received a £429,000 EU grant in 2002.

Then there’s the fact that the Prime Minister’s speech contained a flat lie. She talked about the referendum that gave us the Welsh parliament and said "that result was accepted by both sides and the popular legitimacy of that institution has never seriously been questioned". In fact – everyone on Politics Twitter pointed out long before the speech had even been made – it wasn't accepted by the Conservative Party, which voted against the creation of the Welsh Assembly after a referendum voted for it. Among those dissenting Tory MPs was, you guessed it, Theresa May.

But perhaps the most remarkable thing about the speech was how boring it was. Most of it was too dry to relate here, but all you really need to know is that May insisted that if MPs vote for her deal, that could "move our country forward into the bright future that awaits us", said with all the enthusiasm of someone being made to read a Dignitas brochure. It felt like the speech of someone who knows the jig is already up.


Her pitch is that she is the sensible Brexit option. If she loses, the line goes, the options are either: a) No-deal Brexit – the traffic-jams-in-Dover and hospitals-maybe-running-short-of-medicines scenario that anyone who isn’t a Brexit-ultra will not want to risk. Or b) no Brexit at all, with the resulting political cluster-fuck handing the momentum back to Remainers.

The problem is that too few people are buying that, with the Mail on Sunday reporting that "No 10 has been trying to manage expectations about Tuesday’s vote by claiming that any defeat by fewer than 100 votes would be counted as a good result".

The question for tomorrow is how bad a defeat May will suffer. But even with a whopping defeat, she may haul herself back onto the Eurostar for yet more negotiations over the Irish backstop, which remains the main sticking point. The government published correspondence between itself and the EU, which May says shows that the EU don’t want to be stuck in a backstop arrangement either, thank you very much. But that’s unlikely to convince Brexiteers, who want more assurances that we won’t be stuck there forever. One of those was the government's own whip, Gareth Johnson, who decided to quit the government rather than sell May’s deal to his colleagues.

In a statement to Parliament this afternoon, May attempted to capture the significance of the moment, saying of her deal, "It's not perfect and it is a compromise, but when the history books are written, people will look at the decision of this House tomorrow and ask: 'Did we deliver on the country's vote to leave the EU, did we safeguard the economy, security and union, or did we let the British people down?'"

It has been almost a century since a government lost by over 100 votes. Unfortunately for her, another thing the historians will likely note is the scale of her defeat.