Theresa May emerged from a European Council meeting at midnight on Thursday a chastened figure desperately trying to put her Brexit strategy back on track after what one cabinet minister described as “a cataclysmic” 24 hours.
On Wednesday, a cornered Mrs May came out fighting, suggesting she would quit rather than see Brexit extended beyond June 30, indicating that she was willing to oversee a no-deal exit and hectoring MPs for blocking her deal.
Yet by the time she emerged from a humbling encounter with fellow EU leaders in Brussels — where she pleaded for a delay to Brexit — Mrs May cut an emollient figure, reaching out to MPs in the hope that they might give her deal one last chance.
Journalists leaving Mrs May’s press conference in Brussels were bewildered by the change in tone. “They must have changed her chip,” whispered one reporter as the prime minister left the rostrum.
Mrs May looked like a prime minister given an unexpected reprieve. The EU’s decision to set a new Brexit cliff-edge of April 12 has given her time — her most cherished commodity throughout the Brexit process — to try to save her deal.
The prime minister was explicit on Wednesday that she was determined to bring Brexit to a head next week when she holds her third “meaningful vote” on her deal, saying she would seek just a single short delay to Brexit.
“As prime minister, I am not prepared to delay Brexit any further than June 30,” she said, a message widely interpreted as meaning Mrs May would quit rather than seek a long delay to Brexit.
The problem, as pro-European cabinet ministers pointed out, was that Eurosceptic Tory MPs would simply continue to oppose Mrs May’s deal until June 30, expecting that she would then oversee a no-deal exit.
During the course of Wednesday, Mrs May’s closest colleagues — both pro-European and Eurosceptic — were left in no doubt that the prime minister was willing to countenance a no-deal exit in the summer.
Yet in Brussels, the prime minister changed tack abruptly, saying that if her deal was rejected she was willing to listen to MPs, even if they demanded a softer Brexit. “I’m very clear I will work with the House on how to proceed,” she said.
Downing Street said that a no-deal exit was “still on the table”, but Mrs May did not rule out applying for a longer delay to Brexit if MPs had not approved her deal by April 12.
Her opposition to Britain taking part in European parliamentary elections in May was also couched in softer language: “I believe strongly that it would be wrong to ask people in the UK to participate in these elections three years after voting to leave the EU.”
And Mrs May was in full retreat after her attempt to blame MPs for the Brexit shambles in a Downing Street address on Wednesday night, an initiative widely criticised by Labour and Tory MPs as “toxic” and an attempt to whip up populism.
Julian Smith, her chief whip, was among those to say that the move had backfired spectacularly, alienating the very MPs she hoped to win over to support her deal in next week’s votes.
One minister said that Mrs May had, in the space of 24 hours, encouraged Tory Eurosceptics to reject her agreement in the hope that they could get a no-deal exit, while at the same time dissuading Labour MPs from backing her.
“It’s hard to think of a more inept combination,” the minister said. “It was cataclysmic.” Two ministers told the Financial Times that Mrs May would have to resign next week if she lost her vote.
So Mrs May used her Brussels press conference to try to mend bridges. “I know MPs on all sides of the debate have passionate views, and I respect those different positions,” she said. “Last night, I expressed my frustration. I know that MPs are frustrated too. They have difficult jobs to do.”
Mrs May’s policy and her tone on Brexit now oscillates from day to day and even from hour to hour. “She’s obviously under strain,” said one minister. After the Brussels summit, she has bought herself a bit more time to try to restore some semblance of order.