Shortly after the largest government defeat in history justice minister Rory Stewart made a desperate plea: ‘enough of what most MPs are against. What are they for?’.
This question will be at the heart of proceedings in Westminster over the coming days. Andrea Leadsom, another ally in the Prime Minister’s depleting political coterie, was dispatched to carry out the unenviable task of the morning broadcast round. Quite predictably, she was met with incredulity at her insistence that the next step for the government would be to reach out across the house and find a solution that commands a majority.
If this solution is in the form of an altered withdrawal agreement, I would love to see what it looks like. I would love, even, to read of somebody even suggesting they know what it might be. In a rare instance of blunt honesty, few MPs are pretending they know what a consensus deal might look like. Labour insist on a customs union being in any deal they put their support behind, while Theresa May’s red lines emphatically rule anything of the sort out.
The irony of tonight’s confidence vote is that it’ll most likely make life harder for Corbyn than it will May. He will immediately face calls to honour party policy and throw his weight behind the party backing a public vote. And rightly so.
For the only solution that’ll be left will be a people’s vote. The government hope that if, as is expected, May wins her confidence vote this evening then they are safe to push forward in their attempt to cajole Brussels into further concessions, perhaps surrounding the backstop. But this is nonsense: she delayed the meaningful vote in December claiming it was for this very reason. She got nothing but warms words then, and Brussels remain completely consistent in their policy that any deal must include the backstop in its current form.
And so she will surely still fail to get a deal through the House. Other forms of Brexit – Norway + being the current hottest compromise ticket in town – still require a withdrawal agreement, and the backstop must be part of this. Nick Boles, leading advocate of this option, admits as much himself.
Remember too that this deal has been rejected for reasons other than the backstop. It is a deal which leaves us poorer while managing to simultaneously be the greatest ceding of sovereignty in our nation’s history. It is backed by just one in five of the British public and far from allowing our country to ‘get on with it’ we are merely postponing all the difficult decisions about what our future relationship with our largest trading partner will be until after we’ve left – by this point losing all our leverage in negotiations and handing over £50 billion for nothing in return.
So with May’s deal rejected decisively by Parliament, and other forms of Brexit just as unpalatable as her own, what can she do? In normal times her unprecedented defeat would make resigning obligatory. But these are not normal times, and what some regard as resilience and a duty-bound drive to deliver on the referendum result of 2016 others reasonably read as a dogged determination to ignore the tough reality she faces.
In all likelihood she will push on with her plan to reach out across the bench to find a deal which parliament can pass. Of course, as John McDonnell has said, it would’ve been helpful if she’d reached out sooner. Putting the past behind us, we then find out her current list of MPs to engage with do not include the leader of the opposition, Jeremy Corbyn. You literally cannot make it up.
Ultimately, MPs wrestling with themselves about their next course of action need to ask themselves three questions. First, does May’s deal, or any deal presented to them, meet the promises made in 2016? Will we have more money for the NHS and our public services, will we be taking back control from Brussels, and will we enjoy the exact same benefits as we currently have as a member of the EU?
Second, will the deal be better than the current deal that we have in European Union? Will we be a more prosperous nation, with our rights to live, work and love abroad protected?
And third, does this agreement provide our country with the certainty it needs, concluding negotiations with a clear idea of what our future relationship with our closest trading partner will look like?
The answer to all of these questions is so obviously no. As independent assessments and government analysis has repeatedly shown, we will be poorer with any form of Brexit. Likewise, unless we severe ourselves completely from the continent and countenance a disastrous No Deal, we cannot in any meaningful sense ‘take back control. And with any deal now negotiated the particulars are likely to be left until later, meaning we will be talking about Brexit forever while attempting to make sense of something which has never made any sense for Britain. With no clear route out of the parliamentary gridlock May has just one choice: handing the decision back to the people to let them decide. The sooner she realises this the better.