Julian Smith, Theresa May’s chief parliamentary enforcer, looked remarkably cheerful for a man who this week presided over the fourth biggest government defeat in British history. “Positive,” he smiled, when asked how events were looking in the battle over Brexit.
Mr Smith, the Conservative chief whip, was perhaps drawing comfort from the fact that at least this week’s 149-vote defeat of the prime minister’s EU exit deal was not as bad as the 230-vote humiliation suffered at the first attempt in February — the biggest defeat of a government in the history of the House of Commons.
More likely, Mrs May’s numbers man was simply reflecting a growing belief in the prime minister’s circles that she might be about to pull off a remarkable turnround and push her unloved Brexit deal through parliament when she presents it for a third time next week.
“I think she will get it through,” admitted one Eurosceptic former cabinet minister, normally hostile to the prime minister’s approach. “Even if it’s not next week, then maybe at the fourth attempt.”
The scale of the task facing Mrs May remains daunting; 75 Conservatives and 10 MPs from Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist party rejected the deal on Tuesday. Even if they all switch sides, the prime minister would still require the support of some opposition Labour MPs to get it across the line.
But after shambolic scenes at Westminster on Wednesday night, when Mrs May suffered further Brexit defeats and a ministerial mutiny, there was a renewed sense of optimism in Downing Street.
Arlene Foster, the redoubtable leader of the DUP, was in a mellow mood at St Patrick Day’s events in Washington, insisting she was seeking a deal; some Eurosceptic MPs indicated they were ready to climb down.
“I’m not saying that I won’t change my mind,” said one former Tory minister, adding that if the DUP’s opposition to Mrs May’s deal relented, so would his.
Even Labour admitted Mrs May had appeared close to an unlikely victory on Tuesday until Geoffrey Cox, the attorney-general, published his politically explosive legal doubts about the deal. “She was in striking distance,” said one senior Labour figure.
Chancellor Philip Hammond said Mr Cox was now working to “clarify” his legal advice, with a view — apparently — to reassuring the DUP that he had omitted some crucial insights from his earlier opinion.
Mrs May’s strategy for overturning the 149-vote majority in a third “meaningful vote” on her deal, dubbed MV3 at Westminster, was set out by her deputy David Lidington in the Commons on Thursday.
Mr Lidington said that MPs would be given a “stark choice” next week: support Mrs May’s deal or Britain would be forced to accept a long extension to the Article 50 exit process, likely to last well into 2020 or beyond.
To ram home the point to Tory Eurosceptics, Mr Lidington said that if the deal was defeated in a new vote expected next Tuesday, Britain would have to contest elections to the European Parliament in May, in a highly symbolic blow to their Brexit project.
“If you have a long extension of, say 21 months to the end of 2020 — whatever the period would be — then Britain has a legal entitlement to have representation in the European Parliament,” said Simon Coveney, Ireland’s foreign minister.
Donald Tusk, European Council president, indicated his willingness to help Mrs May out of her dilemma by tweeting that unless MPs back the prime minister’s deal he would recommend a long delay to Brexit at next Thursday’s EU summit in Brussels.
“I will appeal to the EU27 to be open to a long extension if the UK finds it necessary to rethink its Brexit strategy and build consensus around it,” he said.
Mr Lidington also opened up a new front, announcing that if Mrs May’s deal was defeated for a third time the government would allow MPs a series of indicative votes to test support for alternative forms of Brexit.
Those votes would allow MPs to consider other options such as a second referendum or a softer Brexit: a Norway-style single market deal, a customs union arrangement with the bloc, or a combination of both known as Norway Plus.
None of those options would be preferable to the DUP or the Tory Eurosceptic faction than the deal on the table; worse still, under Mr Tusk’s plan, they would not be considered by the EU until the lengthy Brexit extension period began.
To highlight the risk of a “soft Brexit” emerging, pro-European ministers, including Mr Hammond and business secretary Greg Clark, have been talking up the prospects of securing a cross-party “consensus” on a new approach.
The chancellor, already seen by Eurosceptics as an arch-Brexit wrecker, said that Britain had “to explore other options for parliament to express a view about how we resolve this impasse”.
Mrs May has struggled until now to persuade her critics that they really had reached what Michael Gove, environment secretary, calls “make your mind up time”. This time Downing Street is confident that next week really will be seen as the moment of catharsis.