THERE was just time for Theresa May to squeeze in one last humiliation before Christmas. Her latest attempts to win legal assurances from Brussels that the Northern Ireland backstop would be temporary were rejected late on Thursday. She made sure she was filmed having “robust” exchanges with Jean Claude Juncker, the EU Commission President, but no one was fooled. This wasn't a “handbag moment” like Margaret Thatcher's at Fontainebleau in 1984. Mrs May doesn't carry a handbag.

Everyone says it can't go on like this – but it probably will. In the last two weeks the Prime Minster has suffered three parliamentary defeats and been found in contempt of parliament. She had to cancel the “meaningful vote” on her Withdrawal Agreement on Tuesday because there was no hope of it being endorsed by MPs. Then, 117 Tory MPs, nearly 40% of her parliamentary party, voted that they had no confidence in her leadership, even though she’s promised to stand down before the next general election.

This means we have a Prime Minister rejected by parliament, disowned by many in her own party, scorned by Brussels, yet who can't be removed for at least a year. Labour could move a confidence motion, but that will only unite the Tory MPs behind her to keep their jobs. It's utter deadlock. That image of Mrs May unable to open the car door before her meeting with the German Chancellor, Angela Merkell, will be her epitaph. Loked in.

So what happens now? This column has argued that the only form of Brexit with a snowball’s chance of a majority in parliament is the Norway/EEA arrangement. This involves Britain rejoining the European Free Trade Association and remaining in the single market and customs union. It would be fiercely opposed, as it involves retaining free movement and financial payments to the EU. Britain would be a rule taker.

However, there is a substantial group of Tory MPs and cabinet ministers who back it, and it is essentially what Labour mean when they call on Mrs May to “lift her red lines”. If Jeremy Corbyn were to go back to Brussels, as he claims he would, and tried to negotiate a deal he would almost certainly come back with Norway. The SNP, the Liberal Democrats, and probably even the DUP, would vote for it in preference to May’s deal.

But this doesn't mean that Norway plus will ever be put before parliament. Theresa May is intensely hostile because of her obsession with ending free movement. This makes little obvious sense since net migration from the EU is 74,000 and falling, while migration from non-EU countries, mainly in Asia, is 248,000 and rising. But immigration is just her thing – she thinks it is the nation's thing too.

So if Norway plus doesn't get through, and her deal can't get through in the New Year, what happens then? She'll try again in Brussels, but Ireland will still resist any attempt to make the backstop, under which the UK remains in the customs union, temporary. Tory MPs think this is ridiculous: why should tiny Ireland be given this effective veto on Brexit? But the EU is in a febrile state right now. If it appears to give up on its promises to Ireland, it would cause great anxiety among the many small EU nations, like Slovenia, Slovakia, Latvia, who all have a vote at the top table.

If Norway plus and renegotiation fail, then by late January, bottoms will be getting decidedly squeaky. No deal will be only weeks away. In desperation, many in Westminster now believe Theresa May will be forced to resort to a referendum: Her Deal versus No Deal. MPs of all parties would probably revolt and reject this because they believe No Deal is unthinkable and should not be on any ballot paper. To trigger a referendum, legislation must be passed by parliament.

So, Theresa May might come back with a proposal for Her Deal versus Remain. But that would provoke even greater outrage outside parliament. It might bring Leave supporters onto the streets in a version of gilet jaunes protests in France. If parliament ignored these protests, and went ahead anyway, there would probably be a mass boycott of the ballot, which could invalidate it.

By March, Parliament could still be in deadlock and the clock will almost have run out. In extremis, May might be forced to ask MPs for permission to revoke Article 50. The European Court of Justice ruled last week that the UK has the right to do this – though not as a temporary measure. It would mean Britain going back into the EU for keeps. It has the benefit of no borders, and Britain would retain its opt out from the euro and its rebate on the budget. Many people might see this as the only way of ending the agony of Brexit.

But the sense of betrayal among the Leave voters – 17 million of them – would be incalculable. The Tory party would almost certainly split and the government could fall. Labour promised to honour Brexit in its last general election manifesto and Mr Corbyn's instinct would be to oppose revoking A50. But faced with imminent chaos on 29th March, most MPs, and many people in the country, would probably see this as the least worst option.

Fears about a No Deal may have been exaggerated, but it would be foolish to ignore the possibility of disruption, especially since the government has not been preparing for it with any seriousness. There could be 20 mile queues of lorries, medicine shortages, fresh food running out, the army guarding ports. If that happened, and god forbid someone died, public opinion would turn on a sixpence and ask why parliament allowed such a catastrophe to happen. The hard line Brexiteers would instantly forget that they’d been urging precisely this. Everyone would accuse Theresa May of mishandling the crisis, and a Labour no confidence motion would succeed.

By then, we might even have a government of national unity, perhaps led jointly by Amber Rudd and John McDonnell. A most unlikely pairing, but we are in the realm of pure fantasy now. Indeed, this scenario is so awful to contemplate, with both the main political parties irrevocably split, that by late January Labour may realise that it can’t allow it to happen. Jeremy Corbyn doesn't want a repeat referendum, because his party supports Brexit, but he knows he can't vote for disaster.

So, after some cosmetic amendments to the Political Declaration, perhaps envisaging something like continued membership of the single market, Mr Corbyn might reconsider in January. It’s a game of chicken with the PM. One could envisage Labour ending up backing May’s Withdrawal Agreement, for all its faults, on the grounds that it cannot contemplate voting with the DUP and Jacob Rees Mogg to deliver No Deal. No one will be happy; everyone will feel betrayed; but life will go on.

Then, after some feeble celebrations of Britain's departure from the EU, the whole circus will begin again in April, as Britain enters the 2 year implementation period, and the even more complex negotiations resume over the future trade deal. There's no escape. Brexit isn't just for Christmas: it's for keeps.