The Government has this afternoon been defeated in Parliament for the second time in 24 hours, as MPs passed a highly controversial amendment that will force the Prime Minister to return to the House of Commons with a fresh proposal on Brexit within three days if her deal is voted down on Tuesday.
The vote means that if Theresa May’s Brexit deal is rejected by MPs – as is widely expected – she will have substantially less time to formulate another plan which can be approved by Parliament. Although Downing Street has argued that it was planning on returning quickly to Parliament in this scenario regardless, the development confirms that the Government cannot rely on the support of Parliament to avoid embarrassing defeats.
Put simply, this prevents the Prime Minister from prolonged negotiations with the EU, and greatly accelerates the deadline by which she must explain her “plan B”. It allows MPs to formally propose alternatives to the Government’s Brexit plan, potentially including plans for a much softer Brexit, an extension of Article 50, or even a second referendum. The Prime Minister will be hoping that the EU throw her a lifeline in the next few days in the form of more certainty around the backstop proposal.
Political impact – muddle through or another General Election?
What does this mean? Coming after yesterday’s defeat on an amendment that sought to bind the Government financially in the event of a no deal, it seems the Government has lost its authority to win in the House of Commons. If, as seems likely, the Government loses again on the meaningful vote next week, the Prime Minister will be in office but not in power, with no light at the end of the tunnel that might suggest she has the capability to get her version of Brexit over the line.
We know the bent of the Prime Minister: she’ll survive and muddle on. But there’s a question the brains in Number 10 should be asking now. If there’s no way Theresa May can win any votes, what’s the point in carrying on like this? She could try extending Article 50 and going back to the EU to try and cut another deal – and she probably will try that – but does anyone believe she will ever get something that Labour would vote for? Given a second referendum would not rid her of this inability to win votes in the long run, surely the only way out of this is another General Election? It’s not ideal, but there are no ideal solutions at this stage. She doesn’t want no deal and she doesn’t want a second referendum, but she has a decent chance of winning a General Election well enough to overcome the Remainer rebels on her side – the polls are in her favour. It’s a risky strategy, but short of a change of heart from the EU, she’s run out of options. And for those who say, ah, she promised not to lead the Tories into the next election, her aides were quick to clarify that meant in 2022, rather than any time before that. She can’t afford to be bound by that commitment at this stage in the Brexit process if Brexit and her party’s authority are on the line.
For their part, Labour will be hoping to pretty much rerun the 2017 election, expect this time doing slightly better. In that, they want to avoid having the blame for the calling of an election pinned on them for refusing to back a deal, while simultaneously making this election about domestic issues. This was possible in 2017 because Brexit was sufficiently far away that voters couldn’t really see what Theresa May was saying about needing a large majority to get Brexit through, or they had some sense Corbyn was a Remainer and sought to block it. But now the reality is there for all to see. Brexit is in the whites of our eyes and conclusions are crystallising. If you vote for the Conservatives, you’ll get Brexit and a deal; if you vote Labour, you’ll get Brexit-but-not-yet while Jeremy Corbyn seeks a better deal than the one on the table. This could be one of those moments where a paradigm shift in politics occurs – where finally people start aligning round new political parties based on new realities, because Labour’s sit-on-the-fence approach to Brexit can’t survive the scrutiny of a General Election. If you support Brexit, you vote Tory; if you don’t you vote Labour in the hope Corbyn is forced to support Remain. That might mean seats in the north going blue and in the south going red.
So don’t expect this immediately – the Prime Minister wants to have one more crack at persuading Brussels – but surely wise minds in high places must now be wondering if this is the only way out. Jeremy Corbyn certainly hopes so.
Controversy over procedure
Commons speaker John Bercow allowed the House to vote on the amendment, tabled by former Attorney General Dominic Grieve, in a contentious decision which saw him accused by various MPs of ignoring long-standing Parliamentary procedure and undermining his official impartiality by allowing the chamber to reshape Government legislation. Bercow was accused by Brexiteer MPs of purposefully undermining the UK’s departure from the EU, and clapped by many Labour MPs welcoming yet more bad news for the Government. It is alleged that the Speaker provided a ‘direction’ to his officials by going against their advice and precedent by allowing an amendment to a motion. This further inflames the suspicion that Bercow is using his position to thwart Brexit, rather than be neutral.
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