I noted the other day that it was “more likely” that Theresa May’s defeat on her Brexit deal would be a heavy one – “100 votes or more,” I suggested.
In fact it was 230 votes: 432 to 202. As far as anyone’s been able to discover, it’s the largest defeat of a government on a contested vote in Britain’s history. The previous biggest margin the BBC was able to find was 166 votes, back in 1924.
Only three Labour MPs crossed the floor to vote with the government (another three did not vote), as did three independents. But 120 of the 318 Conservatives voted with almost the whole of the opposition and crossbench to reject the prime minister’s plan.
The size of the margin should surely put paid to any suggestion that some minor revision of the deal would be enough to win approval. And the Europeans aren’t going to agree to any substantial revision unless they get some sort of lead from Britain as to exactly what might be able to get through parliament.
And there’s no way that May can provide that without doing what she has so far doggedly resisted, namely talking to the opposition and crossbench to try to frame a common position.
Before that can happen, there will be a vote tonight on a motion of no confidence, moved by opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn. Given the size of May’s defeat, he could hardly do otherwise. Nonetheless, unless something quite unexpected turns up, it will be rejected: none of the Tory rebels, whether pro- or anti-Brexit, see anything attractive just yet in forcing an election or putting Corbyn in power.
There would be some sense in pro-European Tories going to Corbyn and offering to support him in forcing an election in return for a commitment that a Labour government would then hold a new referendum. But I don’t think they will, because they hope (not unreasonably) to be able to get that outcome anyway, without incurring the stigma of being traitors to their party.
And Corbyn, of course, might well turn down the deal anyway.
At some point, however, parliament is going to have to focus on what to do next. Given that there is a large majority against a “no deal” Brexit – which will nonetheless happen on 29 March if no-one does anything to stop it – that means they’re going to have to decide between a new referendum and some quite different Brexit strategy, possibly the “Norway option”.
Realistically, that’s probably going to mean an extension of the article 50 deadline. And since that needs the consent of all the EU leaders, it would make sense to start the process sooner rather than later.
Will the EU agree? If the extension is just to give May more time to conduct the same sort of bargaining that has already failed, then probably not. Yet there’s no sign so far that she has anything else in mind. As Anne Applebaum remarks in a trenchant column, “there doesn’t seem to be a strategy at all.”
EU president Donald Tusk, who has been a consistent voice of sanity throughout the process, asks “If a deal is impossible, and no one wants no deal, then who will finally have the courage to say what the only positive solution is?” No-one has answered him yet.
But at least Jonathan Freedland, in the Guardian, gives a piercing overview of how Britain got to this situation. You need to read the whole thing, but here’s the critical section:
Once [May] had committed to leave the single market, customs union and jurisdiction of the European court of justice, and once she accepted that there could be no hard border in Ireland, then she had all but written the withdrawal agreement that MPs rejected tonight. The EU laws of physics dictated that there could be almost no other outcome.
Of course, May’s drawing of those red lines was itself the fruit of another choice, a political calculation that her best hope lay with placating the hardest Brexiteers in her party. She had seen how the Europhobic wing of British Conservatism had devoured so many of her predecessors, and concluded that her own safety required her to placate that faction. Only later did she learn what her predecessors could have told her: that the Europhobes’ demands can never be met because what they want – cake in both its having and eating modes – is impossible.