If you are looking for a disastrous performance in a starring political role, it would be hard to top British prime minister Theresa May’s turn at last year’s Conservative Party Conference. There, following the catastrophic June 2017 general election, she delivered an equally catastrophic speech, culminated in a coughing fit so severe as to be almost terminal. This year’s Party Conference, held in Birmingham, went a good deal better than that. But then, if you set your standards low enough, you’ll never be disappointed.

There are times in British history when May would have been a good, even an excellent, prime minister. She has great gifts. She has perseverance, a rare aspect of political character that confers profound advantages. Even her worst critics—most of whom were in Birmingham—have never accused her of being anything other than hard working. As home secretary under David Cameron, she excelled in grinding down dumb ideas presented by civil servants. She mastered her brief, and knew the details of obscure and troubling cases without prompting. If she had been in charge in the mid-1990s, she would have been a formidable administrator of the Thatcherite state—not remaking it, not even extending it much, but ensuring it ran smoothly and was bedded in.

But this is not the mid-1990s. The nearly inexplicable popularity of Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party, the changing political order across West, and Brexit all show that this is a time for boldness, for new ideas. And May is not an ideas person. She does not innovate; she implements. She is disinclined to believe that the path of boldness can be safer. She prefers less change to more—an admirable disposition in a conservative, but one that must be balanced by a willingness to make the kinds of change in the forms that preserve the substance. It is often said that May finds making up her mind hard, and changing it even harder. The record does not bear this out: On Brexit, she has occupied almost every position on the map over the past three years. But her bias towards administration means that, when change is forced upon her, she finds it hard to take decisions that commit her to accepting that change.

The result is May’s “Chequers deal” for Brexit. It says much about how Britain prefers to deal with the EU—i.e., mostly as a matter of domestic party politics, and only secondarily as an actual problem. This is a deal that was made by the British cabinet, not with the EU. In other words, Chequers is not a deal at all: It is a proposal. In essence, it calls for Britain and the EU to negotiate a common rulebook on visible goods, including food, that would create a little customs union. It is an effort to change the visible trading relationship between Britain and the EU as little as possible. This idea has only a couple weaknesses: the EU hates it; her party’s members hate it; Labour rejects it; the British public doesn’t like it; none of Britain’s friends outside the EU like it; it’s probably illegal under the WTO; it would radically reduce Britain’s ability to trade freely outside the EU; it would keep British food prices high, and it would in practice make Britain a rule-taker from the EU across most of its economy. Other than that, it’s great.

May affects not to understand why the EU doesn’t like this idea. In her closing speech on Wednesday, she managed to both dig in her heels on it while at the same time arguing that Britain could certainly leave the EU without any deal at all. If the latter is true—and it is—then her plan is a good deal less essential than she makes it out to be. And the EU’s objections are actually quite clear: The EU dislikes Britain getting any of the benefits of the customs union without participating in all of it, and objects to the possibility that Britain might be able to have cheaper imports, less burdensome regulation, and thus more competitive industry by leaving part of the customs union. This is as flat-out an admission that the EU suppresses growth as you could ask for, but at least the EU knows what it wants. Chequers, by contrast, was a u-turn cooked up inside 10 Downing Street, one which lost May the leading Brexiteers in her Cabinet—Boris Johnson and David Davis—and set her at odds with her party.

It’s not quite true that Chequers has no defenders at all. Though it poses as an answer to the problem of the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland—because if the UK and the EU are still in a customs union, there is less need for change on that border—it is more a creation of the British-EU supply chain managers, who find today’s way of doing things convenient. It’s a tragedy that the British policy process has been captured by this tiny, unrepresentative minority of businesses, but Britain has always been fixated on its visible trade relationship with the EU, and the Chequers plan is just another phase of that illness, albeit a particularly silly one. In Birmingham, the two Chequers backers I met argued that British industry could only work on a just-in-time basis inside a customs union, which makes it hard to understand how U.S. works on that basis with Canada and Mexico in a free trade area. Of course, for Britain, changing over from a customs union to a free trade area would require adjustments, but these short-term problems are not fundamental objections and should not be dressed up as such.

In her closing speech, May made a similar argument about the UK’s supply chains. Predictably, she showed no awareness of the shallowness of her case. Her leitmotif, though, was the “national interest”—a thing that does exist, but which when used rhetorically is mostly a way of accusing your opponents of being small-minded without burdening yourself with an argument. As she put it, as prime minister, she had to consider the national interest—which meant, she concluded, that how good a Brexit deal might be in 50 years was irrelevant, because it had to work for everyone tomorrow. It is a strange approach to the “national interest” to insist that it requires you to avoid all considerations that are further out than about six months. A lot of people would say this is the reverse of making policy on the basis of the national interest. All this incoherence reflects the policy isolation of Number 10, the political imperatives behind Chequers, and a prime minister who is out of tune with her party and the times.

It’s old hat to comment that Conservative Party Conferences are now more for lobbyists than they are for party members, and that almost no one actually goes to any of the speeches. All of that was true in spades this year. And it’s equally hackneyed to observe that all of the real passion—and almost all of the attendance—shows up at the fringe events hosted by think tanks and activist groups. This year, I helped launch a draft US-UK Free Trade Area agreement, written by 11 U.S. and UK think tanks working in collaboration, at a conference event on Sunday. We drew a standing room only audience. The home secretary, Sajid Javid—who fluffed his speech by proclaiming the Tories would “fight hope” with hate, and who stands second in the latest unofficial poll of Tory leadership candidates—drew half as many.

But last year, the vitality of the fringe reflected the tribulations of a party that had just about managed to lose an election that it thought it had in the bag. This year, the empty seats at the speech signified that just about everyone in the party recognizes that the real action will kick off soon enough. In other words, the conference was a pause button. All the leading contenders for the leadership—and May herself—badly needed a good conference to avoid slipping back, but all of them recognize that May is very likely to survive until Britain formally exits the EU on March 29, 2019: the UK simply does not have the time for a Conservative leadership contest before then. It also, by the way, doesn’t have time for a rerun of the Brexit referendum—the last one took a year to organize—so you can forget about that.

Between now and late January, the battle will be between May (who wants Chequers), the UK-EU supply chain managers (who don’t want to leave at all, but who want Chequers desperately), and the Brexiteers (who would much prefer a UK-EU free trade area, but who like no deal more than Chequers). But the decisive player will be the EU, which fundamentally doesn’t accept the UK is leaving, and which by offering all or nothing will push the UK to nothing. The most recent evidence of this is the EU’s reaction to the British decision that, after Brexit, EU citizens will not have any special immigration priority.

You might think that would be obvious: if Britain isn’t in the EU, then EU citizens are no different from Australians, Chileans, or Americans. But the reaction of Guy Verhofstadt, the European parliament’s Brexit coordinator, was to assert that “We will never accept discrimination based on skills and on nationality.” If Verhofstadt really hates discrimination by nationality, he should quit the EU and back Brexit, because Brexit will end Britain’s legal requirement to discriminate on the basis of nationality — in favor of the EU. But what Verhofstadt really means is that the EU won’t accept Chequers, because the EU demands that Britain make no real changes in its current relationship with the EU as the price of a deal. In other words, the EU wants Britain to remain in the EU in all but name.

Ultimately, immigration is going to kill Chequers: There is no way the May government can do a deal that allows unlimited immigration from the EU and survive. She nailed her flag to that mast again in her speech, and there can be no retreat for her. Nor is the EU likely to change its mind. The odds of a no deal British exit, in other words, are far higher than most people recognize—and a no deal exit means that May will have chucked out Johnson and Davis for nothing. For her, though not for Britain, Brexit will be a failure, and she will own it. Her need for a Brexit deal helps explain her willingness to throw her lot in with the kind of civil service nonsense that she would have ground down as Home Secretary. But while May needs a deal to survive, the only deal the EU is likely to offer would destroy her.

Either way, she loses—and either way, she will face a challenge for her leadership after March 29, 2019. The Birmingham conference was remarkably calm. But it was not the calm of agreement. It was a tacit agreement to save the fight for later, a pressed pause button. The party will unpause soon enough.