The Government’s motion, which affirmed Parliament’s support for the strategy of seeking legally-binding changes to the controversial Northern Irish backstop, was defeated by 303 votes to 258 after 72 Tory MPs voted against or abstained, mostly from the ERG group of Conservative Brexiteer MPs. They did so because in their view, the motion indicated support for an amendment passed by the House two weeks ago which called for no deal to be averted.
A Labour amendment that would have compelled the Government to bring back the Prime Minister’s Brexit deal for a second meaningful vote by February 27thwas defeated by 322 votes to 306.
A SNP amendment calling for an immediate extension of Article 50 by 3 months was defeated by 315 votes to 93, with a significant number of Labour MPs defying the instruction to abstain.
Why does it matter?
In practical terms, nothing has changed tonight as a result of tonight’s vote. The defeat is embarrassing for the Government, but it has already suffered plenty such defeats throughout this process – their immediate strategy will not change.
The defeat further illustrates that without support from either the Prime Minister’s Brexiteer wing or a significant number of Labour rebels (or a mix of both), there is no stable majority in the Commons for Mrs May’s approach. Somewhat farcically, MPs couldn’t even agree on what they had agreed on two weeks ago.
The defeat could well entrench the EU’s belief that a reworked version of the Withdrawal Agreement will still struggle to clear the Commons. As such, they will be reluctant to offer significant concessions on the backstop for fear the Brexiteers will simply demand more. Instead, they may push Mrs May into going down a softer Brexit route to appeal to Labour MPs (whose own divisions were also on display again).
What happens next?
The next key parliamentary milestone is Tuesday February 26th. The Prime Minister has promised that if she has not brought her Brexit deal back to the Commons by that date, she will table another amendable motion setting out her proposed next steps which will be debated and voted upon the following day, i.e. Wednesday February 27th.
A cross-party group of MPs headed by Labour’s Yvette Cooper has already said that if the deal has not been brought back by then, they will table an amendment compelling the PM to inform Parliament she wants to leave with no deal, or to extend Article 50 if she still hasn’t got a deal in place by the middle of March.
There is some speculation that will be the point at which the contingent of ministers staunchly opposed to no deal will finally make a stand and either force Mrs May to seek an Article 50 extension or resign to vote in favour of the Cooper amendment.
In the meantime, the UK and EU will continue to hold negotiations in order to try to agree legally-binding changes to the backstop ahead of an EU-Arab League summit on 24th-25th February, the next point at which all EU leaders will be assembled.