Facing a critical vote by British lawmakers on her plans for leaving the European Union, or Brexit, the question for Prime Minister Theresa May seems to be not whether she will lose but by how much.
Britain’s Parliament is gripped by a mood of anxiety and suppressed excitement at the prospect of a grave political crisis that looms if, as analysts expect, Mrs. May fails to persuade lawmakers to support her Brexit plan.
If she loses the vote on Dec. 11th, it will be a significant moment for Mrs. May and her country, and the margin could be crucial. A crushing defeat could force Mrs. May to abandon her deal, crash her government or face a bitter power struggle that could oust her from Downing Street.
A more modest loss could keep Mrs. May in the game, perhaps playing to her well known strengths of persistence and dogged determination, and allowing her to return to hold a second parliamentary vote.
In that scenario, Mrs. May might renegotiate small parts of her agreement in Brussels while her party whips at home threaten and cajole rebels. Then some opposition lawmakers would need to be persuaded to vote for her plan for fear of a disastrous exit without any deal.
“Although there are no rules about the scale of defeats, if May loses by more than 40 to 50 votes, her deal would be dead,” though she could perhaps try to negotiate a different type of exit, wrote Mujtaba Rahman, the managing director, Europe, for the Eurasia Group. “If her loss is sizable, say more than 100, and she plowed on with it, the cabinet and/or Tory backbenchers would probably take matters into their hands.”
Some analysts see Dec. 11 as an opportunity for a protest vote and something of a practice run before things get really serious.
“Don’t count May out yet,” wrote Kallum Pickering, a senior economist at Berenberg bank in London, who said that while many members of Parliament dislike her Brexit plan, they have several different reasons.
“The deal is therefore not likely to pass through Parliament initially, at least after just one vote,” he said. “There is so much debate about a possible second vote now that many MPs probably think they can vent their frustration on the first go before getting more serious the second time around.”
In any event, an elaborate game of expectation management seems to be underway, with some of Mrs. May’s allies quietly encouraging the idea that she faces a heavy defeat in the hope that a lesser one will seem an achievement. On Monday the government denied reports in the Sun newspaper that the vote might even be canceled to avoid a calamitous defeat.
Nevertheless, many Conservative lawmakers hate her deal and in particular its so-called backstop plan to keep the Irish border open. That would keep the United Kingdom in a customs union with the European Union, while Northern Ireland would obey even more of the bloc’s economic rules.
To critics this seems the worst of all worlds, leaving Britain neither in nor fully out of the European Union, with no say in its rule making and without a clear exit.
On Monday, critics from several parties denounced the government’s refusal to publish the full legal advice it received on the Brexit plan, despite an agreement from lawmakers on the need to do so.
In some rare good news for Mrs. May, one prominent Brexit supporter, Michael Gove, the environment secretary, has fallen in behind her plan, after a period of silence during which, according to news reports, he considered resigning from the cabinet and turned down the position of Brexit secretary.
Mr. Gove is regarded at Westminster as an adept tactician if not a reliable political ally. In 2016, he abandoned one longtime friend, the former prime minister, David Cameron, to campaign for Brexit, then undermined the efforts of Boris Johnson to take the top post.
On Sunday, Mr. Gove argued that the alternative to Mrs. May’s plan was either an economically damaging departure without a deal or a second referendum and no Brexit. Mr. Gove, who is strongly against holding another plebiscite, then seemed to undermine his argument by adding that the campaign to leave the bloc would win again were a second vote to take place.
His contortions are just one example of the waves of confusion and contradiction washing through the Conservative Party. Writing in the Daily Telegraph, Mr. Johnson — who at one time was part of a cabinet that agreed to the idea having an Irish backstop — described the scheme as a “great steel trap that is about to clamp its jaws around our hind limbs and prevent our escape.”
Mrs. May, who once argued that no Brexit deal was better than a bad Brexit deal, has shifted ground, too. Leaving without any agreement could cause economic chaos, so Mrs. May now says that her plan, while not perfect, is better than any alternative approach.
She can hope that, as the clock ticks toward Britain’s scheduled exit on March 29, other ideas like keeping a closer relationship to the European Union (such as that enjoyed by Norway), or holding a second referendum, will be rejected. That might leave hers as the best of a bad series of outcomes.
On Monday, Mrs. May appeared on one morning television show to sell her deal to the public, presumably in the hope that it will press lawmakers to vote for it. Some have seen her higher recent profile, and a mini-tour of the country, as a dry run for a general election should she feel the need to call one.
Mrs. May, who has a history of avoiding direct questions, seemed to confirm that reputation when she refused to say whether she would resign if she loses the vote on Dec. 11 or to answer, when asked three times, whether Britons would be better off after Brexit.
Mrs. May was probably on firmer ground when she recounted a conversation held with one voter at a ceremony to switch on some Christmas lights.
“A woman came up to me and she said: ‘When you say you want to get this done, you’re speaking for me,’” Mrs. May said.