Delay or decision? It looks like delay again

Laura Kuenssberg
Political editor
@bbclaurakon Twitter

  • Published
Theresa MayImage source, Getty Images

What was "a vital 48 hours to get this done" has now morphed (again) into one of those days where it is not completely clear yet if Theresa May will actually try to get her Cabinet to decide anything on Tuesday, or delay a conclusion (again).

As we reported, after last week's meeting, there were plenty of her allies insistent that something had to be signed off this week in order to get the hoped-for November deal, so that scary-sounding necessary no-deal plans don't have to be triggered.

For once, the Cabinet seemed to have agreed on something, that a deal this month had to be the priority. Plainly therefore, if Number 10 felt they could get something signed off this week, then they would.

One Cabinet source told me this morning "this really does have to be the crunch time" and suggested that the PM would have a carefully-orchestrated plan for tomorrow's meeting and "won't leave anything to chance".

But as the day has worn on, the idea of there being an agreement on Tuesday has slipped away.

The negotiators were locked in talks until nearly 3am but didn't get to a final version of that troublesome Irish backstop that the government seems to have felt ready to present.

So the talks go on. And every day that there is discussion rather than decision the prospect of a November deal fades.

As we discussed here last week that doesn't mean that all is lost, that we are staggering towards leaving without an agreement.

A deal could still be done in December. In fact, the government has a hard deadline in law of the end of January. That's not desirable at all. But it is not impossible.

For Number 10 therefore the plan is to keep going, to keep trying, to carry on trying to find a form of words that works, that would be more politically palatable.

'Change the dynamic'

There is huge frustration in parts of the Tory Party and in Cabinet about this whole approach.

Why does Number 10 believe there could suddenly be a better answer to the same set of problems? As one former minister said, "two plus two is not suddenly going to equal five".

And at the top table there seems to be growing appetite for a change of approach. Three different members of the Cabinet have told the BBC that the PM has to ditch her plan. Carrying on like this, they suggest, is simply banging their collective heads against the same brick wall, because it will never get through Parliament.

Some of them are even suggesting that the prime minister should consider walking away from the talks. One of them told me: "The raw truth is there is a gap between what we can accept and what the EU is offering.

"She needs to change the dynamic and only the prime minister can do that. That might mean walking away, or saying this is our best and final offer."

Another said: "She needs to say that there won't be a deal in order for them to move - she needs to play hardball."

Another senior minister said there is "no political logic" in carrying on with something that has a "cat's chance in hell" of getting through Parliament, calling for her to "pivot".

Is it realistic to imagine that she might change tack?

Well, certainly it's not straightforward after more than two years of deliberations.

Is it likely? Theresa May is not the kind of politician who does much on impulse.

And a senior member of the government told me recently it was crazy to think the prime minister could change tack at this late stage.

But with a deal, or without a deal, there is risk whatever she decides - whenever, and however, she makes that final call.