As the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg put it this morning, “yes indeed, there have been many, many times that we have reported that it is a crunch moment, or a crucial day, or a vital moment.” But tomorrow will be one of the big ones, as prime minister Theresa May finally puts her Brexit deal to the House of Commons.
There is no doubt about the headline result: MPs are going to vote no. Possibly, if the margin is a relatively narrow one – say, somewhere around the 50-vote mark – it will create some momentum for May and encourage her to tweak the deal slightly and bring it back for another vote with some chance of success.
More likely, the margin will be large enough – 100 votes or more – to make that an impossible hope. (Try it yourself here.) Which doesn’t mean that May won’t still try, since from her point of view any other course of action looks worse.
A quick recap here. There are five basic outcomes for this whole saga:
- Remain: Britain stays in the European Union.
- Norway/EFTA option: Britain officially leaves but accepts most of the obligations of membership.
- Soft Brexit: Britain leaves but stays in the customs union (or something like it) for an extended period, maybe forever.
- Hard Brexit: Britain negotiates its departure from the customs union.
- No deal: Britain just drops out of everything.
What I said about these a month ago still holds true:
The supporters of 1., the remainers, have little reason to move because they sense that the momentum is on their side, and the ECJ ruling has opened a pathway towards their goal.
The hard Brexiters, on the other hand, although it might be rational for them to shift from 4. to 3. as the only way of saving Brexit, will not do so for the simple reason that they are not rational people – and also because the default, 5., is close enough to their preference to make it in their interest to stymie any alternative decision.
Moreover, the largest single voting bloc, the loyal Labour MPs, although they are all over the place as regards their preferences for Brexit (but mostly 1. or 2.), have a common tactical interest in frustrating anything that the government tries to do, in the hope of forcing a general election that would bring them to power.
May’s strategy is to try to get remainers and supporters of a softer Brexit to back her because the alternative is “no deal”, and to get hard Brexiters to back her because the alternative is option 1. or 2. The inconsistency between these two positions is just one of her many problems.
She has, however, potentially acquired some breathing space, with a report today that the EU is expecting, and is prepared to consider favorably, a request to extend the 29 March deadline for Britain’s departure.
An EU official is quoted saying that “Should the prime minister survive and inform us that she needs more time to win round parliament to a deal, a technical extension up to July will be offered.” A further extension, perhaps to give time for a second referendum, would then by possible.
But once the magic of the article 50 deadline has been breached, it will be much easier to do it again; “remain” will become more thinkable. And the hard Brexiters, realising that, will become increasingly shrill in their denunciations of anything that doesn’t conform to their vision.
As last week’s votes demonstrated, there is a clear majority in the Commons against “no deal”, and by inference against option 4. Some of the hard Brexiters will probably shift towards May’s position as it dawns on them that their opponents will never allow “no deal” to happen.
That’s certainly the aspect of her argument that she’s stressing at the moment, warning today that a vote against her deal is more likely to lead to Brexit not happening at all, and that this would threaten “the faith of the British people in our democracy.”
But most of the hard Brexiters are unlikely to be convinced; their failure to face reality is already well established, and their personal animosity towards May is as strong as ever. And although they may be a minority in both the parliament and the country, they know that they constitute a majority of the grassroots of the Conservative Party.
So they will keep chanting that “Brexit means Brexit,” a claim that May echoed in saying “We all have a duty to implement the result of the referendum.” But this claim is deeply dishonest.
If it means anything, it means that the majority who voted “leave” in the 2016 referendum must all be presumed to have preferred any Brexit at all – up to and including “no deal” – to remaining in the EU. But such a proposition only has to be stated for its absurdity to be obvious.
Given that the referendum result was so close, you might logically think that the best outcome – that is, the one most faithful to the voters’ wishes – would be as soft a Brexit as possible, or one that was as close to “remain” as you could get. That would mean 2., joining the European Free Trade Association and therefore preserving access to the single market as well as the customs union. Norway is the commonly-cited example, although Switzerland has a similar status.
The problem with this reasoning is that it assumes that Brexit views lie along a single dimension. But they don’t. In particular, there’s no doubt that some “leave” voters, for whom option 2. would not deliver the immigration restrictions that they want, would say something like “Well, if we’re not going to leave properly, we might as well stay in, rather than continue to be bound by EU rules that we’d have no say in making.”
So while the EFTA option has some support in its own right (here’s an Adam Smith Institute paper from 2016 promoting it), it’s going to be more a matter of “remain” supporters thinking that it’s the best they can get without the angst of another referendum.
Opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn has been copping a lot of flak for his failure to commit to anything in particular, whether it be EFTA, an extension of the article 50 deadline or a new referendum. I think some of the criticism is justified: his failure to accept his party’s strong support for “remain” is deplorable, particularly in someone who has made such a feature of his belief in grassroots control.
But some of it is unfair, since there’s actually not a lot that Labour can do until after tomorrow’s vote. That will reveal more about the state of the parliamentary numbers, and may give Corbyn the opportunity to take steps towards forcing an election. As long as that seems to be an option, it’s understandable that he’ll hold off on committing to anything else.
There’s no reason so far, however, to think that a Commons majority is ready to entrust Corbyn with power just yet. More likely, the next step in Brexit will have to be decided, somehow, by the existing parliament, working either with or against the existing government. Check out Rafael Behr’s column the other day for some ideas on how that might work.
You might think that the benefit of a decisive vote tomorrow would be that it will at least take option 3. off the table, forcing MPs to focus on the starker alternatives. But even that probably isn’t true, because a slightly revised version of 3., with permanent membership of the customs union, seems to be Corbyn’s preferred position, and he may try to build cross-party support for it in preference to heeding the calls for a fresh referendum.
And in that case, it might come down to which party splits first.