May all at sea as tide turns against her Brexit backstop deal
Bad day for PM begins with warnings on cod and plaice and ends with slap like a wet fish
As MPs took their seats to hear the result of the vote on the Brexit deal, chief whip Julian Smith approached Theresa May and whispered in her ear. She betrayed nothing as she looked downwards but, a few seats along the front bench, another whip was whispering the news to ministers, who looked frozen by his words.
Across the Palace of Westminster, mini-sweepstakes had been going on all day about the scale of the prime minister’s defeat, and most predictions were in triple figures. But when the tellers announced the outcome – 202 in favour and 432 against – there were gasps in the Commons chamber and in the galleries above.
“Mr Speaker, the House has spoken and the government will listen,” May said from the dispatch box.
“It is clear that the House does not support this deal. But tonight’s vote tells us nothing about what it does support. Nothing about how – or even if – it intends to honour the decision the British people took in a referendum Parliament decided to hold.”
Then she moved to snatch a scrap of political advantage from Jeremy Corbyn, anticipating his announcement that he was tabling a motion of no confidence in the government. Welcoming the opportunity to test the House’s confidence in her government, the prime minister said that if Corbyn hesitated – as he did in December – she would give parliamentary time to a similar motion from another opposition party.
If she won the confidence vote, May would hold meetings with her Conservative MPs, the DUP and “senior parliamentarians” from other parties to identify what would be necessary to secure a majority for a Brexit deal.
“The government will approach these meetings in a constructive spirit, but, given the urgent need to make progress, we must focus on ideas that are genuinely negotiable and have sufficient support in this House,” she said.
The final day of debate on the Brexit deal began with a setback for the prime minister when speaker John Bercow selected just four amendments for a vote – choosing none of those seen as helpful to the government.
The debate began with a turn at the dispatch box by attorney general Geoffrey Cox, channelling the great actor-manager Donald Wolfit as he spoke about the impact of the Northern Ireland backstop on fishing.
The House fell silent as the prime minister began to make the case for her deal
“No Belgian fisherman, no French fisherman, no Danish fisherman, no Dutch fisherman will be allowed to point the prow of their trawlers one metre into British waters under the backstop,” he thundered.
“I ask the House to reflect. Why does the House think that the rumblings and hollow thunderings of concern are emanating from the counsels of the Quai d’Orsay? They have 10,000 gilets jaunes on the streets of Paris and elsewhere, but if their fishermen are told that they cannot catch a single cod or plaice in the waters of the United Kingdom they will place intense pressure upon the European Union. ”
The atmosphere in the chamber was curiously flat for the remainder of the debate until May and Corbyn took their places less than an hour ahead of the vote. The House fell silent as the prime minister began to make the case for her deal, as aware as everyone else that she faced a humiliating defeat within minutes.
No backstop simply means no deal, now and for the foreseeable future
She offered a lengthy defence of the backstop, which she said was not a commitment to the EU but to the people of both parts of Ireland.
“Whatever future relationship is negotiated, or that people want to see negotiated, the insurance policy is essential. All of the other proposals – Canada, Norway or any number of variations on those models – require the insurance policy, which is the so-called backstop. No backstop simply means no deal, now and for the foreseeable future. I do not want to see anybody being able to exploit no deal and bringing doubt about the future of our Union as a result,” she said.
In her statement after the defeat, May appealed to MPs to work with the government to find a form of Brexit that would command a majority and help to bind divisions across the country.
“Every day that passes without this issue being resolved means more uncertainty, more bitterness and more rancour,” she said.