Theresa May talks to Donald Trump at the G20 in Buenos Aires.

May puts on brave face at G20 as Brexit deal flounders back home

When Theresa May addressed reporters on her RAF Voyager plane en route to the G20, she wore an eye-catching bracelet that appeared to depict the Great Wave off Kanagawa, the famous Japanese painting of a tsunami. Hokusai’s famous painting depicts a huge wave threatening three small boats, whose fishermen look calm and decisive.

It could hardly have been a more appropriate metaphor for May’s approach to this summit, which could be her last as a national leader if her mutinous backbenchers get their way in the Brexit vote next week. The latest analysis suggests more than 100 Tory MPs could vote against her deal.

In public, she has steadfastly maintained to other leaders that her Brexit deal is the blueprint for Britain’s post-Brexit future as an independent trading nation, and to reporters that there is no plan B for losing the vote in parliament.

It is a message devoid of the context that her version of the deal looks likely to be voted down in parliament by more than half of the backbenchers in her own party, many of whom have based their opposition on the belief that the backstop provision threatens the opportunity to forge trade deals. During the summit, yet another minister – Sam Gyimah – resigned, refusing to back the deal.

Yet when pressed on how the government is preparing for plan B, May has stressed that none exists, and that she is focused on winning the vote in parliament on 11 December.

“Everyone said we would not get a deal, and now we’re in the position of having a deal, all you seem to want to be asking about is the next stage,” she told reporters on the plane. “We haven’t had the vote yet. Let’s focus.”

“It’s a long flight,” one journalist quipped as the prime minister finished up her press briefing. “Will you spend any time working up a plan B in case the vote falls?”

“Nice try,” May responded.

Throughout the two-day summit correspondents have repeatedly asked if it might be seen as irresponsible to have no plan in place for a second vote, a renegotiation offensive, for an offer to the Labour party or for a commitment to pursue no deal.

Each time May has deflected. It is a deliberate strategy by No 10 to focus minds on the vote in parliament as the real moment of truth. They believe that without convincing colleagues that beyond defeat lies only chaos, the prime minister loses vital leverage.

During the summit, May met with leaders from countries that Britain hopes to forge not only new trading relations but also security partnerships, including collaboration on a new satellite system to rival the EU’s Galileo project, which the UK has now formally pulled from its defence programme.

Only one bilateral was not focused on trade, according to No 10: May’s meeting with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia, where the focus was Yemen and the killing of Jamal Khashoggi.

It was the Australian prime minister, Scott Morrison, who first raised the elephant in the room – that the deal May was here to promote was no foregone conclusion. He politely described it as dealing in “typical British fashion” with “a very tough set of issues”.

“I think you’ve shown great resilience and great determination on one of the most vexed issues I think there is,” he went on, a diplomatic reference to her domestic struggles, which he called “a very difficult issue for you and your colleagues”.

In her next bilateral with Japan’s Shinzo Abe, one of the world leaders who May had hoped would be most supportive, Abe warned in his opening remarks that the UK must avoid no deal “to ensure transparency, predictability as well as legal stability in the Brexit process”.

When May returns to the UK, Downing Street sources said she would not embark on any major tour of the country to sell her deal. Her focus will be on SW1, where she is expected to speak in the parliamentary debates and ramp up a charm offensive to convince Tory colleagues.

For now, those are the people she really needs to convince, not the national leaders gathered in Buenos Aires.