It may seem strange to say of a government that back in January lost a vote by a majority of more than two to one that it has only now lost control of parliament. But that’s the position of Theresa May’s government in Britain, defeated this morning on a key amendment in the House of Commons by 27 votes.
It’s one thing to have your own measures defeated; that’s a risk governments take, although for most of them it doesn’t happen often. It’s much more serious when measures can be carried against you, and particularly by such a comfortable margin.
So what happened? May has admitted that her withdrawal agreement with the European Union, defeated by 230 votes in January and by 149 votes two weeks ago, still lacks the votes to pass. No-one really thinks that it’s even close.
Earlier this month, the Commons voted to rule out – more strongly than the government had wished – a “no deal” hard Brexit. But it rejected, by just two votes, a move to take control of the agenda and hold indicative votes on different options to try to find a way forward. May was given a final chance to work something out herself.
This she comprehensively failed to do. The EU told her that if her agreement was not approved before 12 April – the new Article 50 deadline, now just two and a half weeks off – then Britain would have to come up with a new plan to justify any further extension. But May doesn’t have one; instead, she has just drifted closer to the hard Brexiters.
So her opponents tried again with a plan for indicative votes, and this time they succeeded, 329 to 302. Tomorrow night, the agenda will finally be out of the government’s control.
Just eight Labour MPs defied their party’s whip to vote against the amendment. But 30 Conservatives crossed the floor to support it – including three ministers, who resigned their positions as a result.
And if May tries to frustrate Wednesday’s voting or ignore anything that comes out of it, there are clearly more anti-hard-Brexit Tories on the front bench who will be prepared to jump. In other words, 27 votes is just a minimum figure for the margin against “no deal”.
That doesn’t mean, of course, that the new non-government majority will actually be able to agree on any specific proposal. But the inescapable background to this week’s debate is the fact that more than five and a half million people have signed a petition to parliament to cancel Brexit altogether. It’s believed to be the biggest petition in the country’s history.
So it’s hard to see how Labour MPs and pro-European Tories will be able to justify supporting a compromise that doesn’t include a provision for any new deal to be put to a referendum. But equally it’s hard to see where a majority for such a position can come from if the Conservatives whip against it.
Even if a proposal with majority support emerges, May has threatened to ignore it. In principle that’s not a problem. With no written constitution, the British parliament is sovereign: it can legislate to force her to act, or to divest her of executive authority if she refuses. But the practicalities of doing that with a fragile cross-party majority working under tight deadlines would be daunting, to say the least.
A few years ago (referring to Australia) I remarked that “‘Losing control of parliament’ is not some abstract notion; it means what it says.” It has now clearly happened to May, and in normal circumstances this would be the cue to either resign, to call an election, or to seek an explicit vote of confidence.
But as you may have already guessed, these are not normal circumstances. The EU would be unlikely to be impressed by a request for a fresh delay for the purpose of holding an election, and in any case the Fixed-term Parliaments Act of 2011 removes the prime minister’s power to call one on her own initiative. She would need parliament’s support – and while the opposition would probably give it, it might impose unwelcome conditions.
Although parliament has finally taken the initiative, May’s position remains fundamentally unchanged. Caught between the hard Brexiters and the pro-Europeans, any move she makes in either direction risks splitting her party.
So she has chosen to remain immobile. If Brexit is going to be sorted out, it looks as if it will have to be done without her.