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OK, so MPs don’t want a no-deal Brexit – but what do they want?

Theresa May will try one more time to get her deal through, hoping the prospect of a long postponement will focus MPs’ minds

John Rentoul
Wednesday 13 March 2019 21:53 GMT
Brexit: MPs vote to reject leaving EU with no deal at any time by 321 to 278

As expected, MPs voted to rule out a no-deal Brexit, but managed to make quite a drama of it. Theresa May didn’t want them to rule it out at all, but she was forced by Yvette Cooper, the alternative prime minister, to offer them a vote. She tried to limit her motion to ruling out leaving without a deal on 29 March, which would have kept open the option of a no-deal Brexit after a short delay of perhaps two months.

But the mood of the House of Commons was against half measures, and so MPs voted to rule out a no-deal Brexit at any time. Caroline Spelman, the Conservative MP who originally proposed the amendment, was persuaded by the government that this went too far and would restrict the prime minister’s room for manoeuvre. She tried to withdraw the amendment, but the rules are that any MP who has signed an amendment may put it to the vote, so Cooper stepped in.

The government was defeated by four votes.

In all the high excitement, it was easy to overlook two facts: one, that a similar amendment was passed in January, so the Commons has already expressed its opposition to leaving the EU without a deal; two, that these amendments are expressions of opinion and have no legal effect.

But tonight’s votes mean that the Commons now moves on to the next stage, which is to decide whether it wants to delay Brexit.

In fact, we have probably passed the point when a delay to Brexit can be avoided. It may no longer be possible for us to leave the EU on the original target date of 29 March, even if parliament were now to approve the prime minister’s deal, because there isn’t time to pass the bill to enact the withdrawal agreement in UK law.

There is a big difference, however, between what the prime minister calls a short, technical extension to the Brexit deadline to allow a deal to be implemented, and a longer extension which would be needed if parliament continues to vote against a deal.

Theresa May confirmed after tonight’s vote that she would try again to get her deal through, using the threat of a longer extension as leverage to try to persuade MPs to vote for it.

She still faces a huge challenge to win a third vote on her deal by next Wednesday. She needs 75 MPs to change their vote from last night, which means that even if all 62 Tory Brexiteer MPs and the 10 DUP MPs voted for it, she would still need three more Labour votes.

These things are hard to predict, but one thing that is not going to happen is that all 62 Tory Brexit purists vote for her deal. There is a hard core of 20-30 of them who sincerely regard her deal as worse than EU membership. Jacob Rees-Mogg, who popularised the terms “vassalage” and “colony”, might be prepared to accept her deal, but many of his colleagues take his colourful language literally.

For every Tory literalist who refuses to vote for the prime minister’s deal, she needs another Labour MP to support her, and last night she managed to convert the grand total of one extra Labour MP, Caroline Flint.

I don’t think she can get her deal through, and I don’t think there is any other deal that has a better chance.

So Brexit is likely to be delayed, and possibly for some time – assuming the EU will agree to it. As I have been saying, it is now likely that we will never leave the EU.

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