Earlier this month Theresa May suffered thelargest government defeat in the history of the House of Commonsafter Members of Parliament voted by a majority of 230 to reject her Brexit deal.
In the immediate aftermath of that vote, May’s deal looked as good as dead, with many suggesting that the entire Brexit project could soon end up on the scrap heap.
However, following last night’s series of Brexit amendments, in which the prime ministerdefeated multiple attempts by MPs to seize control of the Brexit processbefore winning a majority for a renegotiated deal, it is for the first time possible to see a route through this mess.
Here’s how things could play out.
May’s demand to re-open the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement earned short shrift from EU leaders last night, with senior figuresimmediately dismissing any renegotiation. As the Telegraph’s Peter Fosterwrites this morning, the prevailing view in the EU is that they only need sit on their hands and May will eventually fold and opt for a soft Brexit which could win the support of the opposition Labour party. The EU’s bet may ultimately prove to be right and it is certainly the case that a deal which left the UK in a closer relationship with Brussels than the bulk of May’s party desires,has the greatest chance of winning a majority in parliament. However, there is so far no sign that this is a bet that the prime minister is willing to take. And if there is one thing we have learned from the past two years it is that May’s first, second and third priorities are managing the concerns of her own party, rather than reaching out to listen to the concerns of the opposition.
She will therefore continue to press for concessions from the EU. And despite their public refusals, the EU will want to do something to help May, even if that doesn’t mean re-opening the withdrawal treaty itself. For that reason we can expect some sort of addendum or codicil to the treaty making it clear that the controversial Northern Ireland backstop will only be temporary and further setting out how it would come to an end.
This will not be enough to convince the hardest of Brexiteers in May’s party and there will always be a rump of Tory MPs who believe fundamentally that the UK should leave the EU without a deal and will do anything they can to achieve that. However, for many others the prospect of a no-deal Brexit, combined with the risk of parliament stepping in to delay or even cancel Brexit altogether, will be enough to bring them back on board. Last night the vast majority of Conservative MPs voted to back May’s deal if she secures changes to the backstop from the EU. While those changes, if they come at all, will not be anything like what they are demanding, many Conservative MPs will ultimately judge that they are as good as they are likely to get.
However, this alone won’t be enough to win a majority for May’s deal, particularly if the Democratic Unionist Party, which props up May’s minority government, remains opposed to it. This is where Labour comes in.
Last night Labour party leader Jeremy Corbyn ordered his party to back an amendment by Labour MP Yvette Cooper which sought to give parliament the power to delay Brexit. However, theamendment was defeatedby a surprisingly wide majority after 14 Labour MPs voted against it and a further 11 Labour MPs, including junior members of his front bench team, abstained. Many more, like Labour MP Lisa Nandy, only reluctantly backed the amendment under the provision that any delay to Brexit would only last three months. Among these MPs, mostly representing seats where a majority of voters backed Leave in the EU referendum, there is zero appetite to delay, let alone stop, Brexit. And aslast night’s victory for an amendment calling on May to avoid a no-deal Brexitshows, there is even less appetite for leaving without a deal.
Faced with a last-minute choice between backing May’s deal, or a mildly-revised version of it, and crashing out of the EU, it is possible to see how enough Labour MPs could ultimately opt to save the day for the prime minister.
The results of last night’s Brexit amendment votes demonstrated three things:
- There is no majority for a no-deal Brexit.
- There is no appetite to delay or scrap Brexit in order to prevent that no-deal Brexit.
- Therefore the only remaining option is to back May’s deal.
If you combine the majority against no-deal, the majority against delaying Brexit and the majority for a revised deal you ultimately get to some sort of majority for some sort of deal. Right now the route to that majority looks incredibly difficult for the prime minister. But for the first time since her defeat earlier this month, it is possible to see how she gets there.