The shock on the faces of the Cabinet and government whips said it all. Last night’s crushing defeat, the biggest in modern history (even for a minority government), genuinely stunned many in Westminster. Their expressions reminded me of the morning after the EU referendum itself, when an ashen-faced Boris Johnson and Michael Gove woke up to the terror of victory.
Johnson and Gove have long-since parted ways, and their differing reactions to the 230-vote demolition of Theresa May’s deal were telling. Gove has told the Daily Mail what many Cabinet ministers now think: “The truth is the ERG (European Research Group of Brexiteer backbenchers) have voted themselves for a softer Brexit. There is now a risk of no Brexit happening, and there is a greater chance of a much softer Brexit.” For his part, Johnson said it was a “bigger defeat than people have been expecting”, adding it gave the prime minister a “massive mandate to go back to Brussels”.
But the real problem for Boris and others is that his ‘cakeism’ was finally buried last night along with May’s deal. The EU’s carefully coordinated, firm response made clear it will not renegotiate the withdrawal agreement. The Northern Irish backstop will remain, which makes the demands of the DUP and some Tory MPs look impossible. Brussels is in no mood to offer any compromises other than tweaks. Assurances that the DUP’s Nigel Dodds called a ‘fig leaf’ may get slightly bigger, but they would still be a fig leaf. The Brexiteers’ bluff - that the EU will suddenly cave at the last minute - has been called. And that’s because May’s own bluff - that she would ever preside over a no-deal exit - has been called too.
Don’t forget that Theresa May is only PM because the 2016 Leave vote ejected David Cameron from No.10. And perhaps the most telling statistic last night was that 118 Tory MPs voted against their government on their Prime Minister’s flagship policy. That is almost identical to the 117 MPs who voted to oust her last month, a collection of the hardline Remainers, hardline Eurosceptics and those who just think May is a terrible leader. The whipping operations of the rebels was impressive (as was Labour’s don’t forget). The shortage of abstentions or switchers underlined once more just how dysfunctional the whips’ office (I wrote about this here before Christmas) now is. Ultimately however, this defeat has to be owned in 10 Downing Street. To pull a crunch vote, only to lose it so massively, confirms May really isn’t in control of the political agenda, her party or Parliament.
EU chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier twisted the knife this morning, saying May’s defeat was “based on the red lines of the British Government”. He doesn’t sound like he’s bluffing. And one or more of those red lines will have to be erased by the PM. It’s just a question of which and how quickly. Her red line on not delaying Brexit (‘we will leave on March 29’) is the most likely to go first, as she needs time for MPs to come up with a solution. That solution may then wipe out her red lines on migration and customs. A No.10 spokesman valiantly said last night that her ‘principles’ remained taking control of ‘money, borders and laws..and an independent trade policy’. The spokesman said the cross-party talks would use the PM’s plan and such principles as their ‘basis’. The bluffing game is nearly over, but not quite.
I’ve written a ‘What the Hell Happens Next?’ piece HERE, setting out the options.
In many ways, last night’s defeat was the best expression of no confidence in May’s government that any Opposition could want. And today’s formal no-confidence vote is temporarily helpful to the PM, buying her a day’s breathing space and allowing her to unite her party against Jeremy Corbyn.
Corbyn’s allies believe he had no choice but to immediately table the motion last night (he suggested he’d already done it, before May tried a lame bid to outflank him by inviting one). He believes there is no time to waste in ending austerity and tackling all the deep-rooted reasons for the Leave vote. Some think he could have let May stew longer, before seeking a confidence vote once all the other Plan Bs for Brexit were exhausted. Faced with no-deal ticking clock, there’s a slim prospect that Tory Remainers would actually rather have an election than crash out of the EU.
Corbyn’s team confirmed HuffPost’s story from Monday night, that in fact a series of rolling confidence votes was possible even if today’s fails, as expected, when the votes come in around 7.20pm. Of course, many Labour MPs see the idea of repeated attempts at a general election as a confidence trick, designed to stall the party’s conference policy sequence on Brexit and prevent it getting to the point where it campaigns for a second referendum. David Lammy told Today that if Corbyn continues to ‘vascillate’, party members would be very unhappy indeed. Neil Coyle was even more graphic last night on Twitter, saying there were “too many apologists for the worst bullshit merchant ever”. John McDonnell stressed ‘no one is vascillating’ and ‘of course’ he was ‘open’ to a second vote.
More than 100 Labour MPs are set to come out for a ‘People’s Vote’ and given Brussels’s hardline last night they may think their hour is finally coming. Donald Tusk’s tweet last night was a not-so-subtle come-on that the only answer to this mess was to remain in the EU. The problem is that even if 100 Labour MPs came out publicly, that is way short of what Parliament let alone Labour would need. And even if Corbyn somehow announced a ‘public vote’ had now been triggered under party policy, the number of Labour MPs still opposed to it would have to be outweighed by a large number of Tories. It may take some Brexiteers, who are convinced they would get an even bigger Leave vote and that the public want a ‘clean’ or no-deal exit, to come out and back a fresh poll. They already have a powerful, anti-establishment slogan lined up: “Tell Them Again”.
Theresa May’s tentative offer last night to work with ‘senior Parliamentarians’ was striking. Within minutes No10 made clear she didn’t include Jeremy Corbyn. That may be not just because it’s ridiculous to sit down with a man who is voting no confidence in your government. It may be a cannier calculation that Corbyn can’t be seen openly working with the Tories, while his backbench MPs can (possibly with his blessing).
And some close to the Labour leader think that with a second referendum unlikely to get a Commons majority, the real option is some kind of Norway-style Brexit, with a permanent customs union or single market access. Labour could claim victory for its ‘jobs first Brexit’, May could get Brexit delivered, while making the Northern Ireland backstop irrelevant. The logic for No.10 is that the Withdrawal Agreement could remain untouched, but the ‘political declaration’ could be changed to pivot more clearly to a Norway-style option.
Yet there are massive risks with a Norway-plus plan. First, it may require a delay to Exit Day, to allow proper negotiations. Even if could be delivered and passed in time for March 29, even if enough Labour votes could be secured, the big problem is that Norway could split the Tory party for a very long time. Agreeing to take Brussels’ rules, with no say and no votes, agreeing to free movement, and ditching an independent trade policy, would be seen as Brexit in Name Only. Cameron’s warning that we would be ‘out of Europe but run by Europe’ could look very prescient. Remainers, as much as Leavers, may find that too hard to swallow.
Andrea Leadsom dug in this morning on the Today programme: “We are clear we won’t be delaying Article 50”. She may be in a minority in the Cabinet now though. And John McDonnell also told the programme: “Extending article 50 is on the agenda and needs to be considered now.” Among MPs keen to avoid no-deal, the race is now on to see who can build up most momentum for Norway-plus or for a People’s Vote. It could be bloody.
May said last night: “It is clear that the House does not support this deal, but tonight’s vote tells us nothing about what it does support”. And EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker has also called for the “UK to clarify its intentions”. So where will the clarity come from? No.10 suggested it was still opposed to ‘indicative votes’ on Brexit options. Next week, it may have no choice, as Parliament takes control of the agenda in earnest.
But there is a radical new idea drafted by Plaid Cymru to break through the logjam. As we exclusively report today, it has a plan to change Commons rules to allow a series of ‘knock out’ votes, forcing MPs to eliminate the least popular options until they arrive at a single solution. The beauty of it is that this is the system the Tory party uses for its leader elections, and (in a different form) Labour too. Worth a look at this blog from Plaid’s Jonathan Edwards as a possible last-resort out of the chaos.
From footage of protesters on Westminster’s College Green, to excitable newspaper front pages and rolling TV news coverage, it was impossible to escape Brexit. But the vote on May’s proposal to leave the EU wasn’t the only news of the day yesterday – far from it. Here’s our round up of all the stories you might have missed on Tuesday while constantly refreshing Twitter for Brexit updates. Trump, Hillsborough, M&S, you name it.
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