The House of Commons on Monday night rejected all the Brexit Plan B options before it for a second time. It is a big setback for supporters of a soft Brexit.
Theresa May will breathe a sigh of relief that MPs have again said what they are against, but not what they are for. It was a missed opportunity for MPs to take the reins. Although the risk of failure was clear, they did not get their act together. Too many MPs voted for their favourite option and against others. For example, some backers of a Final Say referendum did not support a customs union.
Kenneth Clarke’s proposal for a customs union failed by just three votes. A Common Market 2.0 plan for membership of the single market and a customs union was defeated by 21 votes. Its sponsor Nick Boles emotionally resigned the Tory whip, condemning the party for refusing to compromise. Making any deal subject to a confirmatory Final Say referendum lost by 12 votes.
May will feel under less pressure to compromise now. She can argue that her deal secured more votes (286) last Friday than than any of the four Plan B options tonight. Only just, though, as 280 MPs backed a referendum.
The backbenchers behind tonight’s indicative votes will try again on Wednesday. One idea is to combine a customs union and referendum. Of course, efforts to build a cross-party consensus should have begun much earlier – not when the country was looking nervously over the cliff edge. That is May's fault. She should have reached out after losing her overall majority in 2017. The current deadlock was waiting to happen after that.
There is still a natural Commons majority for a soft Brexit, probably a customs union. But whether it is a stable one – needed to pass legislation – is another matter.
The Brexit hot potato now passes to the cabinet. Its meeting tomorrow will be a marathon. May has set aside three hours for a party political session without civil servants, plus two hours for its normal weekly gathering. Clearly, she will let all ministers say their piece and try to bind them into something.
It could be the moment when the cabinet implodes. Rarely have ministers advertised such a deep split in advance – not through the usual nods and winks to Westminster hacks like me, but paraded on live TV and radio.
Pro-Europeans want to opt for a customs union, and are threatening to resign if May goes for a no-deal exit on 12 April. In perfect symmetry, Brexiteer ministers are among about 200 Tory MPs who have written to May urging her to opt for no-deal, and would resign if she swallowed a customs union. Eurosceptics warn this move would split the Tories in two, in a repeat of the division caused by Robert Peel’s repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846.
Downing Street expects a fourth Commons vote on May’s withdrawal agreement in the next few days. But the numbers still look bleak for her. Richard Drax, a Eurosceptic who backed her deal last Friday when it was defeated by 58 votes, said today he had made a mistake and switched back. So May now needs to convert at least 31 opponents.
How can the deadlock between parliament and the government be broken? Ministers are talking up the prospect of a general election, part of a pretty crude attempt to browbeat Tory opponents into submission, alongside warnings of soft Brexit, no Brexit and a long delay with the UK taking part in the European Parliament elections in May.
Some Tories think they could win a general election by painting Labour as “the anti-Brexit party”. They will view Labour’s official support tonight for the single market and free movement as another opportunity.
An election is bound to be on the cabinet’s agenda tomorrow. But the idea has provoked a backlash from Tory MPs who do not want May to lead them into another one – and it is difficult to see how she could after pre-announcing her departure. So the minds of some ministers are rightly turning to the other escape route from the Brexit maze – a Final Say referendum.
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