When England lose to Belgium on the evening of a European Council summit, the headlines write themselves. Brussels’ best were off the bench for the gathering of the 28 European leaders, but Brexit stayed on the side lines. As predicted, the summit was dominated by the migration crisis, with the new, populist Italian prime minister rounding on the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel.

They all emerged, bleary-eyed, in the early hours of this morning. Even if Theresa May had been given longer than dinner to talk about Brexit, there isn’t much to discuss until the Cabinet agrees a new negotiating position at Chequers next week. Addressing the press earlier, Michel Barnier warned that a ‘huge and serious divergence remains’ with the UK. So everything went entirely to script, which doesn’t say much for the writers.

Playing Chequers
You could be forgiven a sense of déjà vu about the prime minister hosting her Cabinet at Chequers to thrash out a final policy on Brexit. That’s because it happened back in February, only to prove not final, or even that substantive. This time, the whole Cabinet is invited for a showdown on a much-redrafted White Paper, which is supposed to provide a detailed model for the future on customs and regulation; unless that is, in another fudge, it offers more than one option.

Compromise is rumoured to be the prime minister’s private position, with a hybrid plan to effectively stay in the single market and customs union for goods, while taking back control of services and agriculture. If true, Mrs May could struggle to get agreement from either the Cabinet or Brussels, despite widening her Chequers invite to improve the arithmetic. So will this round of the game result in checkmate or a stalemate? She risks resignations at home followed by rejection abroad, but as the clock ticks remorselessly, another failure to decide would be the most depressing outcome.

Rebellious streaks
This week, The Queen gave her assent to the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018. There is now a route to legal certainty around Brexit – if not other varieties of certainty – which will be paved with many statutory instruments. Given all the recent predictions of amendment and defeat, this achievement should not be underestimated.

It wasn’t pretty. At times, it was utterly chaotic, but the Government got its way and the Tory rebels ended up humiliating themselves. The memory of Dominic Grieve failing to vote for his own amendment will colour battles to come, from the Trade Bill that returns next month to the queue of other delayed Brexit legislation. Labour didn’t enjoy Grieve marching them up the hill only to march himself back down. It’s doubtful that Philip Lee enjoyed resigning as a justice minister only to abstain one week and be left without friends the next.

Beneath Grieve’s lawyerly manoeuvres, certain undercurrents are becoming clearer. Conservative Associations tend to have a remarkable tolerance of wayward behaviour on the part of their constituency MP, restricting themselves to dark grumbling. Something seems to have changed. One rebel who stubbornly voted against the Government was Anna Soubry, whose association chairman has now conducted a poll of local members about her behaviour, essentially putting Broxtowe on DEFCON 1 for deselection. This may have local roots, but was CCHQ quietly encouraging others to assert pressure on their MPs before the votes? They arranged leaflets to put pressure on Labour MPs in seats that backed Leave, after all.

There is a difference between holding a principled belief and acting as a wrecker. Even in strongly Remain areas like London, a large majority of Conservative Party members backed Leave or want the referendum result to be honoured. When votes in the House of Commons become de facto votes of confidence, the hardcore wreckers simply don’t have the numbers. Marching down the hill can’t disguise that and the government whips can now exert more grip.

Bleak midwinter
Assuming the prime minster ever says what she wants, or gets anyone to agree to it, there remains the question of when the withdrawal deal is reached. It was supposed to be at the next European Council summit in October. December’s meeting already seemed more probable, given the lack of progress, the limited time either side of EU summer holidaying, and the high risk of things going awry as everything is done at the last minute.

There are now whispers about holding a special Council meeting in early 2019. Although Downing Street believes European intransigence only softens against a deadline, delays would worry businesses and trigger more no-deal contingency plans. A fraught process would become toxified, as the posturing by Airbus and counter-posturing by Brexiteers has just demonstrated.

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