Report

A Very British Thrashing

Parliament stomps on May's Brexit dreams.

A demonstration featuring a papier-mâché Theresa May head outside the Houses of Parliament in London on Jan. 15. (Jack Taylor/Getty Images)
A demonstration featuring a papier-mâché Theresa May head outside the Houses of Parliament in London on Jan. 15. (Jack Taylor/Getty Images)

British Prime Minister Theresa May’s 230-vote defeat on her Brexit plan on Tuesday night marks a new low point of chaos for the process of the United Kingdom leaving the European Union. The scale of the rebellion against May’s deal was the most crushing defeat of a government ever. Effectively, Britain’s House of Commons has mounted a coup against the authority of the government.

Yet while dramatic, today’s chaotic scenes both inside and outside the Commons chamber have failed to provide any kind of clarity on what the future of Brexit is likely to be. “Tonight’s vote tells us nothing about what [Parliament] does support,” May told a tumultuous house amid loud heckling and mocking laughter.

Tomorrow Parliament will spend the day debating a motion of no confidence in May’s government raised by opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn within minutes of the historic defeat. “After two years of failed negotiations, the House of Commons has delivered its verdict on her Brexit deal,” Corbyn told the Commons. “Tomorrow … this House can give its verdict on the sheer incompetence of this government.”

In truth, that’s unlikely to happen. Though a large number of Conservative members of parliament—both backers and opponents of Brexit—have clearly registered their disapproval of May’s withdrawal agreement from the EU, few are likely to wish to bring down their own government and trigger a new election. Crucially, the tiny Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party, on whom May’s government relies for its majority, has signaled that it will not back Corbyn’s no-confidence motion. “We’ve seen an incredible, pathetic failure of leadership … they’ve botched the negotiations, they’ve botched the parliamentary process,” complained one anti-Brexit Conservative member of parliament who reluctantly voted for the bill. “But I don’t know anyone in the [Conservative] Party who thinks Corbyn is going to be better for Brexit or for the country.”

The result, if May survives tomorrow’s vote, will be deadlock. May’s strategy seems to be to press doggedly on with her deal, re-presenting it to the Commons in tweaked form. Having told Parliament in 2017 that “no deal is better than a bad deal,” May has now pivoted to the opposite line, insisting that the withdrawal agreement she has spent two years negotiating was the best available and that to vote against it would cause “uncertainty, division, and the very real risk of no deal.”

Indeed, in recent days, invoking the economic chaos of Britain leaving the EU in a no-deal scenario has become the government’s main argument for May’s bill. Hours before the vote, Environment Secretary Michael Gove even invoked an apocalyptic scenario from Game of Thrones to warn MPs against rebelling. “If we don’t vote for the deal tonight, in the words of Jon Snow: ‘Winter is coming,’” Gove told the BBC. Clearly, the tactic didn’t work. “Theresa May has attempted to blackmail Labour MPs to vote for her botched deal by threatening the country with the chaos of no deal,” Corbyn complained on Monday. “I know from conversations with colleagues that this has failed. The Labour Party will not be held to ransom.”

In fact, rejection of a no-deal Brexit is one of the few things that commands broad cross-party support in Parliament, with several backbench MPs proposing various amendments to the government’s bill that explicitly seek to prevent Britain crashing out of the EU on March 29.

Another increasing certainty is that the government will be forced to seek an extension of the Brexit deadline from Brussels. “I don’t see any plausible scenario where the government will be able to get any kind of better deal from the EU, let alone get it through the Commons, within 70 days,” said one senior civil servant not authorized to speak on the record.

The European Court of Justice ruled in December that the U.K. had the right to unilaterally cancel the Article 50 process, the clause in the European Constitution that regulates member states leaving the Union. A deferral of Article 50, however, will require the agreement of all 27 other EU members—a scenario that senior EU officials are already preparing for, according to the civil servant. “The EU has a lot to lose from a no-deal Brexit too. … A technical extension of Article 50 until July is looking achievable.” Crucially, the EU is hoping that a second referendum on Brexit—known to its supporters as a People’s Vote—will prove the only plausible way out of the parliamentary deadlock. “If the deadline is put back by even 10 minutes, I think the whole thing will be off,” the official said. Time pressure was the government’s “main weapon … if they’re no longer able to run down the clock, they’ve lost that leverage.”

What’s less clear is whether any kind of Brexit scenario—including a second referendum—will be able to command a Commons majority. “It’s as if Britain has seven dwarf governments but there’s no one playing Snow White,” wrote political journalist Julian Glover in the Evening Standard newspaper. Among the competing clans are a hard-right Conservative faction that favors no deal, a group of centrists from both major parties who back a so-called Norway-plus deal that would see Britain remain inside the customs union, and a collection of anti-Brexit MPs who favor a People’s Vote.

Which faction will win is anyone’s guess. Importantly, the government has lost its customary control over parliamentary business thanks to John Bercow, the speaker of the House of Commons, who last week broke convention to allow backbenchers’ amendments to government bills to be debated. That seemingly arcane procedural shift is likely to prove a game-changer for the remainder of the Brexit process. Rank-and-file MPs will effectively get to propose immediate votes on questions that the government would prefer to leave undebated. For instance, former Attorney General Dominic Grieve, a leading Conservative opponent of Brexit, last week successfully imposed a three-day deadline on the government to present a plan B in the event of a Commons defeat over May’s deal. Labour MPs are also mooting amendments that would force the House to vote on a second referendum.

“The Prime Minister will no longer command a majority … power has been seized,” wrote Nikki da Costa, a former director of legislative affairs for Theresa May, in a blog post for the right-wing Spectator magazine this weekend. “It will rapidly become clear who is in charge: Labour, supported by the other opposition parties, and a small group of rebel Conservative MPs. All of this was unthinkable on Monday – I categorically judged it impossible. No longer.”

May has until Monday to come up with an alternative plan for exiting the EU. Worryingly, according to Spectator deputy editor James Forsyth, senior ministers have “no idea” what’s going on in May’s mind. The unexpectedly massive scale of her historic defeat now means that “what May thought would be her plan, going back to Brussels, trying to get something and then bringing the deal back is now off the table.” Brussels had made it clear that it will not shift its position on the so-called Irish backstop, which effectively ties the British province of Northern Ireland—and by extension, the rest of the U.K., too—to the EU’s customs rules indefinitely. And with the chances of a People’s Vote—and a likely reversal of Brexit—growing, Brussels has little incentive to let May off the hook by giving her more bankable concessions.

But May’s real problem is that the opponents in her own party are both pro- and anti-Brexiters. Both factions hate her deal—ironically enough, for very similar reasons. The hard Brexit-favoring European Research Group says that her deal leaves Britain too closely aligned to the EU, and they would like to break free. At the same time, pro-European conservatives argue that the deal combines the worst of all possible worlds: losing the benefits of membership and a say in the EU’s future while remaining aligned with all the union’s rules. A revised withdrawal agreement that tacks toward one or the other group will only boost rebels from the other faction. Effectively, there’s no possible deal that May could propose that could conceivably placate all the conservative rebels.

“I believe it is my duty to deliver on [voters’] instruction” and deliver Brexit, May told Parliament just after her historic defeat. Yet with no realistic scenario in sight, Brexit seems to have become a practical impossibility. The pressure on Corbyn from his party to officially back a People’s Vote will now become intense if, as expected, he fails to topple May in Wednesday’s no-confidence motion. But even a fresh vote, with the prospect of overturning Brexit altogether, will only prolong the profound divisions in British politics and society. “Let no one think it will soon be over,” wrote the columnist Polly Toynbee in the Guardian on Monday. “This is only the end of the beginning, in a Brexit civil war that will last a generation. There is no end in sight, no healing in prospect, no solution to hand, whatever the outcome of myriad votes.”

Owen Matthews, the author of Stalin's Children, is based in the United Kingdom. He was Newsweek’s Moscow bureau chief from 2006 to 2016. @owenmatth

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