Well, you’ve got to hand it to Theresa May, she just handled PMQs like another day in the office. But last night the Government was crushed on its Brexit deal with the most punishing loss of a Commons vote deal in recordable parliamentary history. One in three Tory MPs did not back the Government, adding to the 230-vote majority. Amid all the uncertainty and high-drama one thing is certain: the deal is dead. As Jacob Rees-Mogg put it: “it makes dodos look positively energetic”.
As if that wasn’t enough, the Government faces a no confidence motion tabled by Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn tonight, inflicting a nasty punch on an already excruciating bruise. However, all sensible pundits predict the Government will win this vote and the DUP has already signaled their intention to prop up the Conservatives. The confidence and supply agreement remains intact, for now. For them, the prospect of a Corbyn government trumps all other considerations.
But after likely surviving tonight’s vote, the PM and her team will face the massive hurdle of coming back to the Commons with an alternative deal by Monday. Soon after the defeat last night Germany threw a caveated lifeline to the Government indicating it would support reopening negotiations but not, as its foreign ministry said, on “wholly new solutions”. Major players in the EU are getting fed up with British indecisiveness on a withdrawal agreement, as if they hadn’t had enough already. Jean Claude Juncker, never one to hold back, wants “urgent clarification” on the UK’s position and Donald Tusk wasted no time in flirting with the notion of a second referendum. Chief EU negotiator Michel Barnier, perhaps with an author’s pride, told a fairly empty European Parliament this morning that this is a good deal and remains so.
Those voting against the deal last night form a mixture of very different views, ranging from MPs adamant the UK must remain in the EU, to those implacably determined to leave, even with no deal. So what next? Here are five possibilities.
Commons second vote
Following winning a confidence vote tonight, the most probable option is the PM will go back to Brussels to secure more concessions. This will expose whether Brussels is bluffing that there will not be major changes. To aid this approach, the PM will have to deliver on her promise made last night to reach out to other parties for a consensus (although apparently not the opposition frontbench) but this will not be easy with such differing views in the Commons. The PM had better move fast, Monday 21 January is not far away…
Second referendum and extending Article 50
Remain supporting MPs from all parties largely want a ‘People’s Vote’ second referendum facilitated by extending Article 50. Corbyn, known as a eurosceptic himself, is facing mounting pressure in his own party to adopt this line. Even the Brexit shadow secretary Sir Keir Starmer is saying Labour needs to discuss this and moderates like Chuka Umunna want this policy to be adopted by the end of the week. With vocal Tories like Dominic Grieve, Jo Johnson and Justine Greening calling for this, there’s an outside chance it could gain even more traction.
Brexiteers are hardening on this position with the UK legally set to leave in a mere 73 days on March 29. The PM desperately wants to avoid no deal and its detractors see it as ‘crashing out of the EU’. Support for no deal in the Commons is not big enough. The prospect is outnumbered by those who will do anything to avoid it. Some cabinet ministers have even said they’d resign if this were an option. It’s therefore unlikely and, even if it was, it would risk triggering a General Election, thus adding enormously to the turmoil.
Joining the European Economic Area (EEA) or a ‘Norway plus’ model has cross-party supporters, for example Tory Nick Boles and Stephen Kinnock from Labour are keen on this. The EEA would see the UK remaining in the single market but outside EU policy jurisdiction in areas such as home affairs, fisheries, justice and agriculture. Business would like this but Brexiteers would certainly not. Losing the key totems of stopping open borders and free movement will enrage the latter. Not an impossible compromise, but not an overly likely one either.
A customs union?
Remain Conservative MPs favour this and some of them are in the Cabinet, for example Amber Rudd, David Gauke and David Lidington. This could be a peace-offering to Labour who have this as an official policy. If the PM thought she had a big enough row with her own Brexit MPs on this last night, should this become policy she ain’t seen nothing yet. Either way, it would seem unlikely to get the Labour leadership’s support because their eye is on the prize, namely a General Election.