NO PRIME MINISTER likes being defeated in Parliament. Yet Theresa May must at least be getting used to it. On February 14th she lost a House of Commons vote for the 11th time in her brief premiership. Admittedly, the motion was procedural. But her failure to win a majority suggests that her control over Parliament is growing ever weaker. And that casts doubts on her ability to push through any Brexit deal before Britain is due to leave the European Union on March 29th.
At first blush it seems odd that MPs were so exercised over a motion that merely welcomed Mrs May’s intention to follow their demands to renegotiate her Brexit deal, after they had rejected that deal by a 230-vote margin a month ago. The problem was that hardline Brexiteers detected a trap within the bland motion to approve of amendments passed by the Commons on January 29th. One of those amendments was to demand changes to the Irish “backstop”, an insurance policy to avoid a hard border in Ireland by keeping Britain in a customs union with the EU. But another was a declaration that MPs did not want to leave with no deal at all. Many Brexiteers positively favour a no-deal Brexit; others want the option kept as a bargaining tool.
The government tried to placate the Brexiteers by insisting early in the debate that, in the absence of a deal, Britain would indeed leave with no deal on March 29th. But that in turn upset those in the party who want to take a no-deal Brexit, which they think would be highly damaging, off the table. Caroline Spelman, who sponsored the original amendment against no deal, suggested the government was being contemptuous of the view expressed by the Commons. In the end the Brexiteers were not moved. By choosing not to support the prime minister’s motion, they ensured it would be defeated.
As usual Mrs May insisted that nothing had changed as a result. Technically it is true that losing a procedural motion has no significance. Yet it has two consequences that are likely to make it harder for the prime minister to achieve her goal of agreeing on a Brexit deal in time for Britain to leave the EU on March 29th.
The first is that EU leaders will be less inclined now to soften the terms of the Irish backstop. Mrs May had promised them that, if they would only agree to do this, she would get a revised Brexit deal through despite the huge defeat it suffered the first time she tried. Yet seeing her inability even to win a procedural motion, EU leaders will be sceptical that the small tweaks they might be ready to make to the backstop will be enough to make possible a Commons majority.
They will be reinforced in this view by the second consequence, which is the growing likelihood that MPs will now act to prevent a no-deal Brexit. Sir Oliver Letwin, a senior Conservative MP who is fiercely opposed to that outcome, said it was clear that the only way to do this was to pass legislation. The opportunity to do so will come on February 27th, when it is likely that a majority in the Commons will support an amendment sponsored by Yvette Cooper, a Labour MP, to pass an immediate bill demanding that, rather than leave the EU with no deal, the government should ask in mid-March for an extension of the Brexit timetable set under Article 50 of the EU treaty.
EU leaders are likely to agree to such a request, perhaps at their summit meeting on March 21st and 22nd. The big question is how long such an extension should be. Some diplomats reckon it should be quite long—lasting until the end of the year, say—to allow all sides to rethink Brexit, and even to consider if it might be reversed. Yet it seems more likely that an extension will be relatively short, perhaps three months. That may relieve MPs and businesspeople worried by the prospect of a no-deal Brexit at the end of March. But their relief will not last long. For the debate will then come round again at the end of June.