Last night MPs voted on Theresa May’s deal. Less than two months after the original vote – when 230 MPs rejected the deal – MPs defeated it yet again, this time by a whopping 149 majority. This was a smaller defeat but, still, the fourth largest for any sitting government in British political history.
How did it happen? There were some signs MPs might fold and back her deal yesterday morning. Britain’s newspapers ushered in the most important Brexit day in months by splashing on a victorious Prime Minister returning from Strasbourg with concessions from Brussels. Would these changes be enough? The DUP and ERG were quietly contemplative, insisting they’d be chewing over the substance of this deal before making any decisions. For a moment, a path for May’s deal through the commons seemed genuinely possible.
But by the mid-morning it had all unravelled. Geoffrey Cox’s legal advice remained unchanged: in the case of intractable differences, we could be trapped in a customs union indefinitely. No matter how much he implored MPs to make a political judgement and back the deal, he wasn’t willing to sacrifice his legal reputation to save this deal. He sealed May’s fate when he said simply: ‘the legal risk remains unchanged’.
Everybody had assembled their legal minds to pass judgement on the changes secured. Legal opinion from the ‘Star Chamber’ of Brexiteer lawyers – led by Sir Bill Cash – had soon declared the changes insufficient. The DUP announced shortly after that they’d not be backing the deal this evening either. There were Twitter videos popping up from the small group of MPs among the converted – Johnny Mercer had claimed in December that to retain his integrity he must oppose the deal, but told his followers yesterday that he’d be holding his nose and walking through the Yes lobby now instead. But, in the end, these were too few and far between and a thumping defeat ensued.
Without dwelling on the past few days, it’s important to remember that this was always likely to be the case: a unilateral exit mechanism or time limit on the backstop had never been concessions the EU were willing to offer. They’d been consistently clear about this but May pressed ahead anyway, wasting more time dealing in unnegotiable realities as we hurtled further toward the 29thMarch.
However, the next few days might see 29thMarch lose its sacred importance altogether. MPs are likely to vote to request an extension of Article 50. It’s not impossible that we might see Theresa May put her deal to the House again. The normal rules of rejection don’t seem to apply to this Brexit deal, and some cabinet ministers are still insisting there might yet be a way to make it palatable to MPs. Eventually, though, it’ll have to die – and die for good.
It’s unsure how long an extension could be, and this will be for the EU27 – by a process of unanimity – to decide. Whatever the length, it must have a purpose. Theresa May was right to tell the Commons last night that an extension isn’t a solution – it is another cliff-edge, at the end of which No Deal rears its head once again if the impasse continues.
The impasse will surely continue, should the players remain those in Parliament and Parliament alone. There’s thankfully little spirit for swallowing a terrible deal, no matter how many times May insists it is there last chance. In the extension it’d be right for MPs to have a look at whether other options can command a majority. Be it a Norway-style deal, Labour’s alternative Brexit plan or another form of Brexit, these should be debated and put to a vote in the house. We learnt in 2016 that Brexit – in its original undiluted, undefined glory – is far more appealing before a particular form of Brexit is held up to scrutiny. It is unlikely that, in the light of careful analysis, MPs will want to give their consent to a softer form of Brexit which still leaves us poorer and with less control than if we remained a full member of the European Union.
At this point the British public are right to demand a decision to this disastrous affair. We might, by then, be nearing the end of a short extension, still no closer to making sense of the direction we want to take. All the while, uncertainty and anxiety grows; businesses continue preparing for a No Deal which politicians assure us they won’t allow to pass and yet refuse to legislatively ensure it will not; and the global community look on with complete bemusement at the self-inflicted horror show continuing in Britain.
If we think we’re sick of the deadlock now, continued triangulation will be intolerant in an extension. If all alternative forms of Brexit are rejected by the house the only option left will be to hand the decision back to the people in a public vote. Those worried that to do so would lead to a fundamental breakdown in trust between representatives and citizens must concede that this fissure in the social contract has surely occurred already. It is a breakdown made worse still by politicians joking about genitalia in the chamber on a day of fundamental importance, or by the repeated mistruths and aggressive partisanship, all at the expense of those seeking a policy grounded in reality.
No, our politicians can’t sort this out themselves, and yes, it is an indictment of our democracy that we’ve ended up here. But we have to be sensible about the options remaining. If we reach a stage where no form of Brexit commands a majority we should be confident in Britain to do what our politicians cannot, and allow the people to sort out this mess ourselves.