Well, that was pretty clear

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.

8 thoughts on “Well, that was pretty clear

  1. This should have happened last year. Exactly as everyone knew, this has merely wasted 5 weeks. The charitable attribute it to a deliberate strategy of May’s rather than sheer panic. The fact that she appears to have no Plan B doesn’t really support this interpretation. The problem remains: hopelessly divided Tories and a weak and vacillating Labour leader who is a known Brexit supporter–hoping to run down the clock under the Tories so he gets what he “secretly” wants but avoids the fall-out, then in one bound becomes the next PM. He can’t stay so wishy-washy, except of course that he can and probably will. Senior Labor MPs now face their moment of choice. They need to act against Corbyn after he is given this one last chance to do the sensible thing (that the vast majority of Labor members and voters want).
    Likewise, if May really wants to redeem her awful reputation she could try to be bi-partisan but 1. her party won’t let her and she clearly doesn’t have the leadership skills (though she possibly as the courage?) to force it; and 2. it would be a waste of effort with Corbyn as leader. Are the SDP + LibDems big enough to form a cross-party grouping (ie. with Tory Remainers) to get something done?

    As usual (I’d say about 40 years: this year is the 40th anniversary of Thatcher’s election) the UK is in a mess without any path forward, and bereft of leadership on any front.

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    1. Agree completely. As long as the number of Tory dissenters was manageable, you could argue that May’s failure to have a fallback plan made tactical sense, since running down the clock might scare them back to the fold. That’s now clearly hopeless, yet she seems not to have anything else.

      My guess is that the Labour MPs will force Corbyn’s hand, but exactly how & to what effect it’s impossible to say. I think the majority opposed to “no deal” will eventually have its way, but it’s no certainty.

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      1. I don’t have any confidence that Labour will do anything about Corbyn. They give the impression of deer frozen in the headlights, locked into dumb party protocols, that even this potentially existential event can’t shake them out of. I’m afraid my experience with Brit politicians has led to a worse judgement than of Australian politicians, which is saying something. (Indeed our worst examples are the ones who mime the Brits, like Howard, Abbott, et al). And this, from Jonathan Freedland in today’s (yesterdays) Guardian:

        “Or you could go further back still. The Suez fiasco of 1956 was meant to have cured Britain of its imperial delusion, but what’s clear now is that many Britons never quite made that adjustment. Underpinning Brexit, with its belief that Britain should separate itself from its closest neighbours, is a refusal to accept that we are one part of an interdependent European economy. For the Brexiteers, Britain remains a global Gulliver tied down for too long by the Lilliputians of Little Europe. It is a fundamental misreading of our place in the world.

        Perhaps, though, the seeds of the vote were planted in the rubble of Britain’s wartime experience. Never occupied, many Britons never understood the intense need for the EU as continental Europeans feel it. In 1984, at a ceremony to honour the fallen of Verdun, François Mitterrand and Helmut Kohl held hands, in a powerful gesture of Franco-German reconciliation. According to her biographer, Margaret Thatcher was unmoved, instead mocking the sight of two grown men holding hands.

        This has been Britain’s European story, repeatedly seeing what was a project of peace, designed to end centuries of bloodshed, as a scam designed to swindle the Brits of their money. You can go further back, to repeated wars against the French, the Spanish and the Germans. Or you can go further back still to the first Brexit nearly five centuries ago, when Henry VIII sought to take back control by breaking from Rome.

        Wherever you choose the starting point, the end point is clear enough. It ends like this, in the sight of a parliament paralysed by indecision, still unable to embrace Europe – but just as unable to break away. And in the spectacle of a country lost and adrift.”

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