A rocky road to Brexit

In breaking news this morning, Britain’s Conservative government was defeated in the House of Commons on a Labour amendment to its Brexit legislation.

The amendment guarantees that parliament will have a final say over the terms of departure from the European Union once negotiations with the EU are completed. Eleven government MPs crossed the floor, carrying the amendment by four votes, 309 to 305.

As I said three months ago, “if Labour keeps pushing, it means that the government will be at the mercy of pro-Europe dissenters on its own backbench whenever a Brexit-related issue comes to a parliamentary vote.” That has now been graphically demonstrated.

The direct effect of the amendment is probably small. The government said that it was going to give parliament a vote on the final deal anyway (a promise that the rebels didn’t trust), so it’s unlikely to make much difference to the course of negotiations, which in the last week or so have looked somewhat more favorable for the British.

But its real significance is as a precedent. It shows that there are Tory MPs willing to defy their party on Brexit, and next time around it may be something bigger. As the Guardian quotes one unnamed MP, “It will be much, much easier to do it again. Rebelling once gives you a taste for it. The discipline has been broken and it shows actually that if you do risk it and rebel for something you believe in, you can make a difference.”

And it’s not just about the Conservative Party. Critical to the result was that Labour held solid; only two of its MPs voted with the government. Opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn apparently pulled out all the stops to keep his troops in line, despite the strong Eurosceptic presence among them. The minor parties (Liberal Democrats and Scottish and Welsh nationalists) also voted against the government.

The spectacle of Corbyn, himself a long-time EU critic, leading the rearguard defence of cosmopolitanism has not become any less incongruous with time. Something will have to give eventually. But Corbyn evidently hopes that he can hold things together for long enough to bring down Theresa May’s government and force a fresh election.

What he needs is for the negotiations to reach a point where the Tory rebels will balk at something that the government has to treat as a matter of confidence. That prospect is still some way off, but it came noticeably closer this morning.

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