Even if parliament ‘takes control’ of Brexit, it will still have to choose
After today’s defeat in the House of Commons – the second in 24 hours – what might Theresa May do next?
The prime minister has lost another vote in the House of Commons. For a long time after the election stripped her of a majority, she and her whips were able to avoid defeats, mainly by not taking part in votes that didn’t matter and by postponing votes that did.
Now she is running out of time and cannot put off the crucial votes on Brexit. So yesterday she lost a vote on an amendment tabled by Yvette Cooper, Labour, designed to show parliament’s opposition to leaving the EU without an agreement. Today she lost a vote on an amendment tabled by Dominic Grieve, Conservative rebel, to set a new timetable for approving her Brexit deal.
This defeat sets the scene for the next one, when on Tuesday next week she is expected to lose the vote on the withdrawal agreement itself. The Grieve amendment requires her to table a new motion in the Commons setting out her plan within three working days of losing that vote.
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This will accelerate matters compared with the previous timetable, which allowed her three weeks. But she has had long enough to think about how to respond when MPs refuse to approve her deal. Ministers say they are frustrated by her unwillingness to share with them her plan for what to do next. At cabinet yesterday she was said to be “tight-lipped” when pressed for a plan B.
But they have only themselves to blame. Every cabinet discussion is now leaked to journalists so quickly that ministers might as well meet in a TV studio. The slightest hint of the prime minister’s intentions would immediately become the top trending topic on Twitter.
We have to rely on informed guesswork, therefore, about what Theresa May will do when she loses Tuesday’s vote. But, first, will she postpone it again? That is quite possible. She might be so furious with John Bercow, the speaker, for letting Grieve table his amendment today, apparently in defiance of convention, that she would delay the vote again – to regain some of the time that has been lost by today’s new timetable.
On the other hand, she won’t want to run away again. I suspect her calculation is that losing the Brexit deal vote is a necessary stage towards finally winning it. And she knows now that Conservative MPs cannot launch another leadership challenge against her – under party regulations that option is ruled out for 12 months after the attempt last month.
What is more, it is possible that she won’t lose the vote as badly as is widely expected. Hilary Benn, the Labour chair of the Brexit select committee, still intends to table an amendment that refuses to approve her deal and also “rejects” leaving the EU without a deal. If that passes on Tuesday, it would be a defeat for the government, but by a much smaller margin than the 100 or 150 that has been bandied about, because it wouldn’t be supported by hard-Brexit Tories.
Even so, she would then have to find a way to force the House of Commons to decide, in the words of Stephen Barclay, the Brexit secretary, what it is in favour of, not what it is against.
So far, her tactic seems to have been to allow the Commons to run out of time – although it may not be a tactic; it may just be the path of least resistance. Once MPs get close to the real deadline of 29 March, she may calculate, they will back her deal as the only way to avoid a no-deal Brexit.
The House of Commons seems to have run out of patience with that approach, hence today’s attempt to speed up the timetable. But changing the timetable doesn’t change the choice. The fundamental trilemma has not changed: the UK can leave with the deal, or something very like it; it can leave without a deal; or it can postpone Brexit and hold a referendum.
If parliament is going to “take control” of Brexit, as the prime minister’s critics from both sides of the Commons claim, parliament will have to choose one of those three. How May responds to Tuesday’s impending defeat doesn’t really change that.
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