Okay, still getting used to the idea that I have an actual audience, but as I’ve been asked, here’s the state of play as I understand it.
Yesterday’s defeat was both huge news and utterly inconsequential. Inconsequential because it went exactly as expected and hasn’t really changed anything, huge news because of the sheer scope of defeat. Sky’s “225 or more” prediction was a massive outlier; most pundits were predicting a defeat by 100 or less.
Parliament may not know what it wants, but it definitely didn’t want that. Various amendments were brought forward, to try and make it more acceptable to various factions or to kill it for political point-scoring purposes, but all but one were withdrawn in the end (John Baron demanded his go to a vote in sheer desperation, and was slapped down 600-24) because every faction in Commons, in the end, wanted a verdict on May’s deal as it stood, and that verdict was utterly resounding. It won’t stop May submitting much the same deal again (which she has said she’ll do), but it gives the Opposition and backbenchers a mandate to push in a new direction, and potentially gives the Speaker an excuse to empower them to.
But what new direction? The only effective majority Parliament’s been able to muster in recent days has been the anti-the-Withdrawal-Agreement majority that forced changes onto May’s timetable in December and last week and then hammered her yesterday. They’re overwhelmingly opposed to a no-deal exit, but of the other paths out of this mess, it’s not clear there’s a majority for any of them, nor that a fresh election would lend any clarity to the situation. So: good news if your heart is set on Remain, since a Government win yesterday would more or less have sealed the deal and ushered us out of the Union; but simultaneously, bad news if you’re worried about leaving without a deal, because it leaves us stuck in deadlock.
So what next? There’s a Vote of No Confidence motion to debate today (after Prime Minister’s Questions, which is hilarious). At present, the odds are that May will win, even in the utter fucking state she’s in; she still theoretically has a majority (with the DUP assuring her yesterday they would honour the confidence-and-supply arrangement, and the ERG pledging to back her), and while she has a shit-ton of rebels in her party (118, last night!), none of them will want to risk a Corbyn government. But it’s a hair-fine majority, and all it needs is a dozen or so of her pro-Remain MPs to decide it’s worth a risk to shake things up.
In pretty much any event, we’re running out of time, but that’s where there is good news: the EU’s largely reconciled to extending notification, although the word is that the length of the extension will be based on how likely we are to resolve the situation; “trying to negotiate a new deal” will earn us weeks at most, while “a new referendum” will probably get us eight months.
Based on the vote, there are two very different timelines to follow.
May Wins: In the likely event that the Government retains control, May has three days to present an alternative, which she can’t; she’s gone back to the EU again and again, and all they’re willing to do is tweak. The deal she presents on Monday will be much the same deal.
This time, it’ll be amendment city; yesterday’s 230-vote defeat means Commons doesn’t have to give her deal even a moment’s thought, and everything from a new deal to a second referendum to simple revocation will be on the cards. This is the House’s chance to show what they do want.
This could result in some sort of way forward shaking out of the mess—or it could result in the Agreement just being defeated again, leaving us circling the drain. Both May and Labour have suggested they could just keep having votes on the Agreement and Votes of No Confidence until something changes…
May Loses: In the less likely event of a Government defeat, May’s out and the two-week timer starts on the Fixed Term Parliaments Act. Someone has to try and win a Vote of Confidence. In descending order of likelihood, those someones are:
- Assuming May also resigns as leader of the Conservative Party, that triggers their leadership process; the 1922 Committee will intervene to get a placeholder in the seat in a couple of days, who in theory still has a majority of the House.
- Corbyn doesn’t and can’t wield a majority, but could try and form a minority Government.
- The Act doesn’t actually say it has to be an established party; in theory, a cross-party majority of MPs could agree to support a unity Government for the purposes of solving Brexit.
If no new Government can form in that two weeks, Parliament is automatically dissolved and a new General Election is called. Campaigning will presumably be kept to the legal minimum 25 days, giving us a new Government in the last few days of February. I think Labour is banking on repeating the shock 20% swing in June 2017, but I doubt they will, although they’ll still pick up a handful of desperate Remainers with no better choice. I’d predict a hung parliament, with Labour the largest party and a Labour/SNP/Lib Dem coalition able to wield a majority if Corbyn can persuade the Lib Dems.
So, whether May tries to pull something out of her hat, or Parliament forces amendments on her, or Labour somehow takes the reins of power, what are the options? What’s the support in Parliament, and what are the complications? Well, as I see it:
Revocation: The easiest solution by far is simply cancelling and pretending it never happened. But the referendum result, advisory or not, foreign interference or not, is a political reality, and for a substantial chunk of Parliament it’s a mandate from their constituencies they’re reluctant to simply overrule. I don’t know if there are numbers, but I can’t see this having more than 100 votes right now.
Literally Any Deal (May’s or Otherwise): Aside from the fact that the EU keeps loudly insisting that they’re not interested in going back to the negotiating table, the basic problem here is the backstop. Ireland doesn’t want the Troubles back, and Ireland has a veto on the Council of Europe; which means any deal Europe agrees to has to guarantee an open border across the island. And since no withdrawal agreement—whether May’s, or some hypothetical Labour alternative—can guarantee what the final relationship will be, that means a backstop. Perhaps, if we pursued some sort of Norway-plus-customs-union deal from the outset, the EU wouldn’t have seen it as necessary, but now that we’ve spent so many months complaining about it and trying to wriggle out of it, the EU won’t trust us without one.
But the backstop is Parliamentary poison. Remainers don’t want to leave at all and Brexiters don’t want a chance of being stuck in the EU by fiat. Perhaps, once they understand that the backstop is fundamental to any EU deal and is really, really only intended to be temporary, they’ll come round, but at the moment, any deal with a backstop, jobs-first or not, will be defeated in Commons.
Second Referendum: Unloveable as the idea of another 100 days of Nigel Farage screaming about brown people is, this may be the only way through Parliament. It’s been long enough, and the polls have shifted enough, that the argument that we need a second look based on what we now know carries some weight. There’s support in Parliament for the notion on both sides of the issue. The problem is the question; one faction wants a “Remain or May’s Deal” question, and one wants a “No-Deal or May’s Deal” question. In the end, they’ll probably have to compromise on some sort of three-option deal (with an Alternative Vote system, an irony that may actually kill me).
And that’s me done, for now. There’s PMQs first, and then the start of the debate, so all of this will be outdated very soon. Please stay hydrated and do nice things that make you happy. xx