After British Prime Minister Theresa May suffered another humiliating defeat in the House of Commons, her Brexit plans are no closer to coming together than they were a week ago. In fact, last night’s events have pushed Britain closer to a no-deal exit from Europe – and put her strategy in even greater disarray.
Last week, the Prime Minister reassured EU leaders that progress towards finally sealing the deal on Brexit would be made. Yesterday’s vote was supposed to be a straightforward approval of the current holding position, involving the original Brexit deal with some amendments. While it was non-binding, it would have sent a message to Brussels that the UK is getting itself together over Brexit.
But pro-Brexit Conservative lawmakers had other ideas: They objected to the tweaked plan’s opposition to a no-deal Brexit. There is a small but significant group of MPs who want to keep no deal on the table because it severs all ties with the EU. By abstaining rather than voting with the government, those Tory Brexiteers inflicted May’s eighth Commons defeat on Brexit, which she lost by 303 to 258.
The defeat is a setback for May’s attempts to get her plans approved by Parliament and a blow to her authority over her party and the Commons. But it also risks further undermining her credibility with EU leaders.
Last week, May went to Brussels – and Ireland – to try to persuade EU leaders to support changes to the withdrawal agreement hammered out in November. This week she had to show them that those changes have the backing of the UK Parliament. On that, she has failed.
The Prime Minister will hold further talks with EU leaders next week. But with yet more Commons votes and the prospect of further defeats on the cards, why would Brussels back a revamped Brexit deal when May cannot even get the UK Parliament to endorse it?
Westminster and Brussels have become used to the Brexit stalemate after weeks in which it seems little progress, if any, has been made. Yet as of Friday, there are now 42 days until Britain is supposed to leave the EU on March 29, with or without a deal. Only an extension to the deadline, which must be approved by the EU, can delay that cliff-edge moment.
That window is even smaller than 42 days because the Commons does not sit at weekends and most Fridays. Lawmakers have already had next week’s mid-February recess canceled in an attempt to break the impasse.
In two weeks’ time, MPs from all sides of the House are planning a series of showdowns over the most contentious outstanding issues – and this time, the votes will be more than just symbolic. Among them will be attempts to hold a second referendum, which is unlikely to pass, and also introduce a new law officially blocking a no-deal Brexit, which could be voted through by lawmakers.
It is this second scenario that Brexiteer Conservatives are desperate to avoid, which helps explain why they rebelled against their own Prime Minister last night.
May now has less than a week to come up with a meaningful strategy to win over EU leaders, and a fortnight to win over the Commons. Her problem is that, after eight defeats, her authority over her MPs and the Commons is weaker than ever.
In a sign of her fragile leadership, the Prime Minister was not even in the Commons to respond to last night’s defeat – as she has done on every other occasion. Instead she quietly slipped out of the building and into her prime ministerial motorcade shortly after the vote – fueling the impression across the House that she is not in charge of Brexit.
In fact, it is the Brexiteers – the same lawmakers who tried to remove her as Conservative leader in a vote of no confidence in December – who have made clear they are firmly in charge. Earlier, in the debate before the vote, the Tory former cabinet minister Oliver Letwin said: “When the chips are down, (she) will actually prefer to do what some of my esteemed colleagues prefer, and to head for the exit door without a deal, which the secretary of state informed us is the policy of Her Majesty’s government in the event that her deal has not succeeded. That is terrifying fact.”
With no sign that even a modified May deal will win support in the Commons, there are possibly only two ways Brexit can play out: The Prime Minister bargains with the Labour Party and other opposition lawmakers to hammer out a softer Brexit compromise, perhaps around the UK remaining in a customs union with the EU, and in turn avoid the need for support from Euroskeptics on her own side. Or, Britain will exit the EU without a deal on March 29.
The customs union option would be welcomed by Brussels, but it would cause outrage among anti-EU, hard Brexit Conservatives, potentially splitting her party. Yet a no-deal Brexit would plunge the UK into a period of economic uncertainty, with businesses warning that investment and trade would dry up overnight, and the prospect of emergency food, water and medicine supplies being rationed by the government.
Both options will be ringing alarm bells in Downing Street today. The Prime Minister has survived two confidence votes and, so far, eight Commons defeats. It is not clear whether she can survive many more.