Two huge developments on Brexit this week.
First, Theresa May’s disastrous EU Withdrawal Agreement (negotiated and endorsed by the EU) suffered a crushing defeat in Parliament, going down by 432 votes to 202. This was a fundamental rejection of a deal with a host of problems. Under any normal circumstances, such a mammoth loss on a key policy would have ended a Prime Minister and a government.
Second, the leader of the opposition, Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn, called a subsequent vote of “no confidence” in the government. But with Brexiteers, including the Northern Irish DUP, swinging back behind the Prime Minister to avoid the possibility of a general election, the government survived (by 325 to 306).
What happens now? The default, set out by law, is that the U.K. leaves the EU on March 29th with or without a deal. It is well documented that there is a clear majority in Parliament who want to avoid leaving without a deal. But there is no clear majority for any of the options necessary to prevent a no deal exit.
I spent some time looking at the parliamentary arithmetic last night, from the perspective of Theresa May. She says that she a) wants to avoid no deal but b) wants to ensure she delivers Brexit. And there is no obvious means of achieving both of these goals.
Option 1: Operation Engage Conservatives
Her first option is to try to get more Conservatives on board to support a Withdrawal Agreement. But the difficulty of her being able to do so is set out by the graphic below. The Brexiteer Conservative rebels either want to completely throw out the Withdrawal Agreement for something new, remove a key provision (the backstop) or else simply leave without a deal. Given the EU has said publicly it will not renegotiate or remove the backstop, this seems a dead end unless May is willing to countenance no deal seriously.
The polling suggests that the Brexiteers were right about the politics up front – if the Prime Minister had pursued an “extensive Free Trade Agreement” Brexit and had not got bogged down in the complex arrangements she’d agreed, then a majority could just about have been eeked through on Conservative and DUP votes, with a smattering of Labour rebels (the no deal and no backstop crowds would have accepted it).
But we are where we are. Unless the EU is willing to reopen negotiations and offer a Canada+ deal for the whole of the UK (ending provisions to treat Northern Ireland differently) then tacking towards Brexiteers is endorsing the prospect of no deal, which May says she does not want.
It remains to be seen, of course, how many of these Brexiteers would actively support delivering Brexit through no deal if the EU rebuffed the opportunity to renegotiate outright. But through revealed preference (rejecting the Withdrawal Agreement), they have surely shown they are willing to countenance that risk.
One clear conclusion of this polling of Conservative rebels though is that there are only a tiny number of additional Conservative votes to be gained from a softer Brexit (single market *and* customs union membership – so‐called Norway Plus). Given the commentariat all seem to think this week’s events must result in a softer Brexit, that means…
Option 2: Operation Engage The Opposition Parties
The second option is to give up on Conservative votes and try to reach out to opposition parties. Theresa May has offered Parliamentary talks to their leaders, and other groups of senior Parliamentarians. So far though, the leaders of the Labour party, the Lib Dems and the SNP have all said that their key demand is “taking no deal off the table.” Given no deal is the default Brexit, that essentially means “take guaranteeing Brexit off the table,” something the Prime Minister cannot do without her government likely falling.
The problem with dealing with the opposition parties is that they themselves are divided into two broad camps over what to do next.
Yesterday, 71 of 256 Labour MPs joined the campaign for a second referendum. Add in the Lib Dems, the SNP, the Green, a smattering of Independents who want this too and, say, 20 Conservatives, and there’s still only a combined circa 150 in the Chamber who are strongly for a fresh public vote. Even if the government went in this direction, and took the payroll vote with it, that would not command a majority in the chamber either. An overwhelming number of Conservative and Labour MPs in working class seats still by‐and‐large oppose a 2016 rerun. This could only happen if the Labour front‐bench shift their position.
But the only other option that opposition parties might be interested in is a much softer Brexit: either a full, permanent customs union (Labour’s official position) or a Norway style option. Given 150 MPs would prefer a second referendum, it is unclear how many would opt for this if it was available. The only means of getting it through seems to be with Labour front‐bench support, giving blessing to large numbers of Labour MPs to vote with the government. That would tear the Conservative party apart and probably guarantee a defeat in the next election, which would naturally appeal to Labour. But on the flipside, large numbers of Labour MPs in Leave constituencies would consider it highly risky as much of the media would describe as Brexit In Name Only, and the completely unreconciled Remainers would reject it for not fully ending Brexit.
Over the coming weeks, Parliament will likely host lots of indicative votes on all these options. The government has to bring forward a revised motion and try again. But so far the Prime Minister appears unwilling to change much of substance, and it’s not clear where she turns.
Crucial now will be the sequencing of votes by MPs for alternatives. If it gets to a stage where it’s the prospect of no deal against the last perceived line of defense against that happening, then Remainers and soft Brexiteers could unite. For now though, they are hopelessly divided too. Absent further constitutional vandalism endorsed by the Speaker of the House of Commons (a strong possibility), I still believe a no deal Brexit is highly possible, despite media claims to the contrary.