THE SYMBOLISM was painful. Facing the reality of another lost vote in the Commons on March 12th, Theresa May lost her voice too. The prime minister croaked that, now that MPs had decisively rejected her Brexit deal for a second time, by 149 votes, they faced “unenviable choices”. But the truth is that, along with her voice, she has lost control of the Brexit process.
That was brought home a day later when MPs voted against leaving the European Union with no deal, on a motion proposed by cross-party backbenchers rather than the government. In a further sign of lost control, four cabinet ministers defied their party whip, yet escaped sanction. The motion does not eliminate the risk of a no-deal Brexit, since under both British and EU law this remains the default course. But it shows that MPs have rejected not just Mrs May’s Brexit plan but also her mantra that no deal is better than a bad deal.
Hostility to a no-deal Brexit is understandable. The government’s analysis shows it would inflict heavy economic damage, disrupting supply chains and causing chaos in ports, airports and on roads. Brexiteers say the EU would immediately offer Britain a series of mini-deals. But the EU is clear that contingency plans for no-deal protect its 27 members, not Britain. As if to confirm this, Brussels expressed concerns about British plans this week to cut most tariffs and impose no customs controls on the Irish border in the event of a no-deal Brexit. Such a smugglers’ charter would, the EU thinks, breach World Trade Organisation rules.
After such a difficult week the prime minister must sympathise with Shakespeare’s character Dick, who declares that “the first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.” For it was her own attorney-general, Geoffrey Cox, who scuppered the chances of winning recalcitrant MPs over to her deal, precipitating her Commons defeat.
It was not meant to be like this. Late on March 11th Mrs May had rushed to Strasbourg to meet the European Commission president, Jean-Claude Juncker, and win some last-minute concessions from the EU over the Irish “backstop”, an insurance policy to avoid a hard border in Ireland by keeping the entire United Kingdom in a customs union with the EU. The fear of Tory Brexiteers and of the Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) was of being stuck in this backstop with no escape. Mr Juncker duly agreed to a new legal text promising not only that the backstop would be temporary but also that the EU would do its utmost not to use it. And Mrs May appended a unilateral declaration, which the EU agreed not to oppose, asserting Britain’s right to exit the backstop.
Her hope was that these new texts would allow Mr Cox to soften the warning he gave about the backstop in November, when he concluded that there was no mechanism giving Britain a unilateral right of exit. Mr Cox duly advised that the new texts had indeed reduced the risk of being stuck in the backstop. But he went on explicitly to repeat his earlier conclusion that Britain would still have no lawful means of exiting the backstop save by agreement with the EU. This was enough for the DUP and most Tory hardliners to reiterate their opposition to the deal, despite Mrs May’s efforts.
What now? Almost incredibly, Mrs May plans another vote on her deal next week. She may press Mr Cox to amplify his advice by noting that the Vienna convention on international treaties can allow countries to pull out of them. She will defy a convention against repeated votes on the same measure. She will lobby the DUP hard. Yet for all such efforts, the voting arithmetic still seems stacked against her.
If she loses again, the focus will switch to the need for delay. Shortly after we went to press MPs were due to vote on motions asking the government to seek more time. Brexit day is March 29th, two years after Mrs May triggered Article 50 of the EU treaty. But there is provision for extending the deadline, subject to the unanimous approval of other EU governments. Mrs May is expected to take a request for such an extension to the EU summit that convenes in Brussels on March 21st.
Most observers believe the EU will agree. But its approval cannot be taken for granted (see article). Other governments will want to debate how long any extension should be and what it will be used for. EU leaders will also be anxious to avoid British participation in the European elections in late May. So their instinct will be to offer Britain no more than two or three extra months.
Mrs May might use the extra time to keep trying to get her deal through Parliament. After all, as both she and the EU insist, it is still the only one on the table. She may take comfort from the fact that it was defeated by “only” 149 votes this week, down from a record-breaking 230 in January, and may be defeated by even fewer next week. Yet the EU has made clear that it will not reopen negotiations on any aspect of the deal. So unless she can lure over more Brexiteers fearful of losing their goal altogether, or more MPs still worried by the no-deal risk in May or June, Mrs May’s deal could just keep failing.
That means searching for an alternative way forward. In the Commons this week the prime minister asked if MPs wanted to revoke the Article 50 letter, to hold a second referendum or to have an entirely different Brexit deal. Several Tories have openly floated the idea of replacing her as prime minister, preferably with a more fervent believer in Brexit (see article). And the leader of the opposition, Jeremy Corbyn, argued as ever that the solution was another general election, followed by a magical Labour Brexit that would be easy and quick to negotiate.
There are three big problems with any of these ideas. The first is that, although MPs have made it obvious that they do not support Mrs May’s deal, there is no clear majority for a different one. This might not change even if “indicative votes” on potential alternatives were held, as was suggested this week by the Commons Brexit committee. Second, any other Brexit deal, such as a permanent customs union or the Norwegian option of joining the European Economic Area, would still require the passage of the withdrawal agreement, including the Irish backstop. And third, a short extension will not allow enough time for most possible alternatives, including holding another referendum.
It is tempting to blame the EU’s tough negotiating stance for the mess. Yet the real culprit was Mrs May’s incompatible goals. She wanted to leave the single market and customs union, to have no hard border in Ireland and to impose no new barriers between Northern Ireland and the British mainland. But an independent trade policy and open borders are incompatible. Refusal to accept the trade-offs inherent in leaving the EU bedevils the whole process, no matter who is in charge of it.