Brexit: What happened at Westminster and what’s next?
British cabinet holding lengthy meeting after four Brexit options failed to get a majority
What just happened?
MPs were again unable to find a majority for any alternative Brexit deal in a series of indicative votes, as was the case in the first such votes last Wednesday. All four options were rejected, although one – a plan to leave with a permanent customs union – lost by just three votes.
What were the results?
The motion on a customs union, put forward by the Tory veteran Ken Clarke, lost by 273 votes in favour to 276 against. This was a slight improvement: the majority against the plan last week was six. A cross-party motion for a “common market 2.0” fell by 21 votes (261 to 282); a call for any final deal to be put to a referendum lost by 280 to 292; and a plan to give MPs the power to extend Brexit, or at least choose between no deal or revoking article 50, lost by 191 to 292.
Were there any surprises?
Yes and no. There had been no definitive expectations of any measure reaching a majority, but proponents of the customs union and common market 2.0 plans had been hopeful – the former because the margin of defeat had been so small last time, the latter because Labour changed its stance to whip in favour of the idea.
What sunk the two close-run plans?
In the customs union vote, joining the vast majority of Conservatives in the no lobby were a mix of people for whom the plan was not Brexity enough (the DUP, some Labour leavers) and those for whom it was too hard a departure (the Lib Dems, the Independent Group). Some remain-minded MPs abstained.
The common market 2.0 plan suffered from a similar mix of opponents, and worries about the idea of not ending freedom of movement led 25 Labour MPs to defy the whip, mainly those in leave-voting areas. Another 33 Labour MPs abstained.
Are MPs ever going to agree on anything?
Who knows? The expectation had been that a looming no-deal departure – now due in 11 days’ time – would focus minds, build bonds and prompt compromises. But that has yet to happen. Focus will now turn to a possible third round of indicative votes, perhaps on Wednesday. Jeremy Corbyn, responding to the results in the Commons, called for this course of action, saying that if it was “good enough for the PM to have three chance at her deal”, then the same should go for MPs.
Does this mean Theresa May’s plan is back on?
It never went away, at least not as far as the government is concerned. Despite having put the deal (or in the last case, half the deal) to the Commons three times and losing by 230, 149 and 58 votes respectively, it seems likely MPs will get a fourth go later this week. Responding to the results, the Brexit secretary, Stephen Barclay, said May’s plan was the only viable option left, given that the Commons had rejected leaving without a deal and cancelling Brexit. But with the DUP and Tory hardline Brexiters still adamant that they cannot back the plan, it still appears unlikely that it will pass.
Who’s going to be most pleased by this?
The MPs pushing the alternative plans are certainly not so chipper – the Tory Nick Boles resigned the party whip after his common market 2.0 plan was defeated, saying the government had refused to compromise.
Theresa May could take grim pleasure from MPs trying to “seize control” of the Brexit process amid much criticism of her supposed incompetence and then proving just as unable to find a way through the weeds. She also now does not face the immediate choice that would have come from a positive vote for a softer Brexit: embrace this and lose half her cabinet or reject it and go for no deal, thus losing the other half. A couple of Brexit-minded MPs had even indicated that if May pushed for a customs union, they might vote with Labour on a no-confidence motion to bring down the government.
But she still faces an intractable decision, a ticking clock, a mutinous party, an aghast British public and a frankly baffled EU.
So what happens next?
No timetable has yet been agreed. The cabinet is meeting on Tuesday morning for what will be a hugely important gathering, even by the standards of recent weeks and months. It seems we can then expect a new vote on May’s deal later in the week, and perhaps more indicative votes.
Will this mean a long delay to Brexit, and UK participation in EU elections?
Given parliament’s strong opposition to no deal, this is looking more likely. According to officials close to the Brexit negotiations in Brussels earlier in the day, the UK could still leave by May 22nd – the set departure date if May’s deal is passed – if the Commons orders Downing Street to negotiate a customs union. However, the Commons has not done this. – Guardian