There literally isn’t enough hyperbole available to chuck in the direction of British politics tonight. Chaos, meltdown, lunacy – just a few of the milder terms bouncing off the walls inside Parliament within the last few hours.
It is difficult to imagine in normal times that a Prime Minister who has lost two meaningful votes on Brexit withdrawal and tonight effectively lost control of the Brexit process wouldn’t have resigned. But these are not normal times.
And amongst it all it is still just conceivable that Mrs May’s deal could yet pass, as Brexiteers consider if the looming spectre of longer delays or even never leaving the EU is actually a reality.
So what happened. In short MPs voted against a no-deal Brexit by a majority of 43. While the result is symbolic, it is not legally-binding and the fact remains that until Parliament votes for a deal, the UK will leave without one.
In order to avoid that fate on 29March, tomorrow night will see a vote in Parliament on whether to extend negotiations until 30 June, or potentially much longer. Next week will also see a third vote on Theresa May’s Withdrawal Agreement, along with other alternatives.
The choice facing MPs, said May, was to pass a deal and have a “short, technical” extension to Article 50; or something “much longer”, which would force the UK to take part in the European Elections at the end of May.
Some hard-line Brexiteers from the ERG group have already suggested that they might back May’s deal at the third time of asking.
What has happened?
The House voted by 312 votes to 308 in favour of an amendment from Conservative MP Caroline Spellman to take no deal firmly off the table. This overtook a Government motion which would have rejected no deal but kept the legal default to leave without unless a deal were reached by 29March.
Despite the Government whipping against the definitive rejection of no deal, it still lost by 43 votes, and abstentions from four Cabinet Ministers – Amber Rudd, David Gauke, Greg Clark and David Mundell. There is significant unhappiness on the backbenches at their move, but they are likely to keep their jobs. A minister from the Dept for Work and Pensions, Sarah Newton, resigned to vote in favour.
In a separate vote, MPs also voted down an amendment tabled by Conservative MP Damian Green which had support from Remainers and Brexiteers across the party by 374 votes to 164. The amendment sought a standstill transition but without the contested Irish backstop, a proposition the EU had already rejected out of hand. Four Cabinet ministers with rumoured leadership ambitions – Sajid Javid, Gavin Williamson, Jeremy Hunt and Andrea Leadsom – took advantage of the free vote to vote in favour.
Speaking after the votes, a European Commission spokesperson said that “To take no deal off the table, it is not enough to vote against no deal – you have to agree to a deal. We have agreed a deal with the Prime Minister and the EU is ready to sign it.”
What does it mean?
In purely legal terms, the original Government motion and the Spellman amendment have exactly the same effect, which is none. The only way no deal can definitively be taken off the table is by revoking Article 50 or agreeing a deal. As such, tonight’s votes do not change the fact that, as the Government’s motion correctly noted, no deal remains the default outcome.
However, the difference in wording between the two was symbolically important, as it reflected the Commons’ desire to remove the prospect of no deal, and the Government’s to ultimately keep it on the table. The Government’s defeat therefore represents yet another loss of authority for the Prime Minister amid increasingly evident intra-Cabinet divisions which could yet pull the Government apart.
That said, this defeat could work to Mrs May’s advantage. If she is able to finally persuade her Brexiteer rebels that any extension poses an existential threat to Brexit, they could still swing in behind der deal in a third meaningful vote.
What happens next?
MPs will vote tomorrow on extending Article 50, with Mrs May confirming that the proposed delay would last until 30 June. This will be an amendable motion, so MPs in favour of a longer extension in the hope of pushing a second referendum could try to push for that.
The Prime Minister also implied that she could put her Brexit deal before MPs once more next week. She said that “If the House finds a way in the coming days to support a deal”, the Government would seek a “short technical extension of Article 50” to allow for the passage of the necessary legislation to implement the deal. However, this might also be the occasion at which so-called indicative votes are held to test whether other options, such as a softer version of Brexit, can command an overall majority.
Therefore, an extension is now highly likely under any circumstances, although Mrs May claimed that an extension from the EU would “only likely to be on offer if we have a deal in place.”
Mrs May also made clear that if MPs were to reject her deal for a third time, having tonight rejected no deal, a longer extension of Article 50 would be required, and this would mean that the UK would have to take part in the May European Parliamentary elections. She argued that “I do not think that would be the right outcome. But the House needs to face up to the consequences of the decisions it has taken.”
Tomorrow will see MPs seek to force a longer extension, and by proxy, once again affirm their opposition to the PMs Brexit plan.
If MPs do as expected instruct the Prime Minister to seek an extension, then she will have to request it from the EU and receive the unanimous agreement of all 27 EU leaders at next week’s European Council Summit (21-22 March).