May’s Brexit deal in tatters

House of Commons Chamber. Source: Wikimedia

By Sam Tilley

Theresa May suffered the biggest loss in modern Parliamentary history yesterday as MPs forcefully rejected her proposed Withdrawal Agreement by a margin of 230 votes.

Going into the vote, it was widely expected that the Prime Minister would fail to get her deal through the Commons, although the margin by which she lost shocked even the most pessimistic of supporters. Immediately following the crushing loss, the Leader of the Opposition, Jeremy Corbyn, announced he was tabling a motion of no confidence in the Government which, if passed, would pave the way towards a new general election.

The writing was on the wall for May’s deal as far back as July when, following marathon talks at the Prime Minister’s summer residence, arch-Brexiteers Boris Johnson and David Davis resigned as Foreign Secretary and Brexit Secretary respectively, both citing irreconcilable differences between their ideas on Brexit and the official UK negotiating position. These departures were followed by the second Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab, who decided to quit rather than support the finalised Withdrawal Agreement. Minutes later, he was followed out the door by Work and Pensions Secretary Esther McVey, another prominent Brexiteer. Both Raab and McVey were seen as potential leadership candidates. Opposition has only intensified since then.

Scores of Conservative MPs had indicated that they would vote against the Withdrawal Agreement, both from the Remain and Leave sides of the party. They were followed into the ‘No’ voting lobby by all but three of Labour’s 257 MPs, the Liberal Democrats, the SNP, Plaid Cymru, the Green MP and the government’s Confidence and Supply partners, the DUP. All of the above combined to give May the biggest loss in modern history. Whilst the overall result was never in doubt, the scale of the defeat, 202 for and 432 against, has sent shockwaves around Westminster. The loss of 230 demolished the previous record of 166, set in 1924 in the midst of a crisis concerning Communist interference over the incumbent Labour minority government.

Following the record-breaking vote, Jeremy Corbyn finally called for a vote of no confidence in the government, backed by all but one of the remaining opposition parties, the sole exception being the DUP. With the Prime Minister retaining the support of both the DUP and the portion of hard-Brexit leaning Conservatives known as the ERG, it is almost unthinkable that today’s vote goes against the government but in case it did, a loss would mark the end of May’s premiership. Any successor government would then have 14 days in order to win a vote of confidence in the Commons before a general election is called.

Assuming the Prime Minister wins tonight’s vote, it is unclear what steps she would then take in order to try and gain a majority for any future relationship with the EU. Although she announced yesterday that after the no-confidence vote, the government would seek “cross-party support” for deciding the next step forward, there are rumours that the Prime Minister has already ruled out any attempts at retaining a custom’s union, one of the Labour Party’s own ‘red lines’ for Brexit negotiations. It is also unlikely that pro-People’s Vote parties will compromise on their key demand for a second referendum, something that could split the Conservative Party if formally accepted as official government policy.

In more normal times, a loss by this scale on a government’s central policy issue would undoubtedly be followed by a Prime Ministerial resignation. Indeed, in normal times, a Prime Minister would be forced to go having lost nine cabinet members in just over a year. But these are decidedly not normal times and with little over two months to go before Britain leaves the EU, you can be assured that this particular rollercoaster is yet to run its course.

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