Where to now, Brexit?

Britain’s House of Commons will tonight spend a second day in the search for a common position on Brexit, independent of the government’s usual control of the agenda.

In the first set of votes, held last Wednesday, none of the eight options presented won a majority (you can see all the votes here). But no-one thought they would, at a first attempt; it was more a matter of working out where the rough balance of support lay, as a basis for making some deals.

Since then, prime minister Theresa May has made yet another attempt, last Friday, to win approval for her withdrawal agreement with the European Union. She failed again, 344 to 286. So there’s pretty clearly no progress to be made on that front.

Instead, while no certainty, it seems likely that MPs tonight will agree on a plan that differs from May’s, based on permanent membership of the customs union. It may or may not include participation in the single market, and it may or may not involve putting the final negotiated outcome to a fresh referendum.

But there is clearly some basis for a consensus. Of the Commons’ voting strength of 638,* 341 voted last week for either the customs union or a new referendum (most of them for both). Another eight defied the government on the procedural vote but supported other options.

Then there were the 34 MPs who abstained on all the indicative votes – May’s cabinet, plus a few other Tories who followed their lead. The time is fast approaching when the Conservative leadership is going to have to jump one way or the other.

The numbers are there to overwhelm the hard Brexiters, although internal divisions within that majority may still prove fatal. The interesting question is what will happen if a compromise emerges but May refuses to implement it.

May’s whole strategy so far has been based on preserving the unity of the Conservative Party at all costs. But if parliament endorses an alternative to her deal, that game will be up. Either she agrees, in which case the hard Brexiters will walk out, or she sides with them and defies the Commons, in which case her pro-European colleagues (somewhat unfortunately known as “One Nation”) will quit.

In the latter case, the majority in the Commons will have to pass legislation to either by-pass or replace May in order to resolve matters before the new article 50 deadline of 12 April. That’s possible – parliament can move quickly when it has to, although you wouldn’t guess that from the last two years of tomfoolery – but it won’t be easy.

It’s not impossible that a deal based on staying in the customs union could be brought within the framework of the prime minister’s withdrawal agreement (that is, keep the agreement as is and rewrite the political declaration), and therefore take advantage of the EU’s longer deadline of 22 May.

More likely, however, the new plan if it emerges will require a long extension, and therefore participation in elections for the European parliament. And if the Tory Party splits, then a general election will not be able to be delayed for long, so negotiations with the EU – and the possible referendum to follow – would be conducted under a new government.

As I and others have pointed out before, May is somewhere near the centre of her parliamentary party; whichever way she moves, she will lose comparable numbers from the opposite flank. But the Conservative Party in the country does not have the same balance: it is overwhelmingly anti-European.

So unless some means can be found to postpone a leadership election, the Tories will fight the next election under a hard Brexiter, with a manifesto that many of its current front bench will be unable to support.

Where will they go? Will they bring themselves to support Jeremy Corbyn as prime minister, either by a vote in the Commons or as the result of an election? Or will Labour’s internal tensions, which are comparable but (at least on this topic) less serious, lead to the emergence of a genuine centre-left alternative, of the sort that its deputy leader, Tom Watson, is angling for?

Stay tuned; this saga has quite a way to run yet. As Nick Miller said last week, “You couldn’t make this stuff up.”


* There are 650 seats in the Commons, but the Speaker and his three deputies do not cast deliberative votes, the seven Sinn Féin MPs always abstain, and one seat is currently vacant.


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