What's next for Brexit after May's humiliating defeats?
Contempt finding and move by Conservative rebels backdrop for next five days of talks
Before she opened a five-day debate on her Brexit deal on Tuesday night, Theresa May had suffered two humiliating defeats in the House of Commons. Her government became the first in history to be found in contempt of parliament because of its failure to publish attorney general Geoffrey Cox’s full legal advice to cabinet on the deal.
The DUP joined the opposition to vote against the government, ensuring a defeat by four votes that will see ministers publish the advice within days.
The prime minister’s second defeat was less dramatic but more consequential for the future of Brexit if her deal is, as expected, defeated next week. This time it was pro-European, Conservative rebels who demonstrated their strength, with 26 crossing the floor to help defeat the government by 22 votes.
Dominic Grieve’s amendment will allow MPs to table amendments to any motion on EU withdrawal that would follow a defeat of May’s deal next week. MPs could vote to rule out leaving the EU without a deal, to pursue a Norway-style membership of the European Economic Area (EEA) or to call a second referendum.
Such a vote would not be binding but it would be almost impossible for the government to ignore a direction of that kind backed by a majority of MPs.
Earlier on Tuesday, Manuel Campos Sánchez-Bordona, advocate general to the European Court of Justice (ECJ), told the court that he believed Britain could unilaterally revoke its decision to trigger article 50. If the ECJ upholds that opinion, it will offer an important boost to campaigners for a second referendum by robbing their opponents of the argument that there is too little time to arrange a second vote.
Grieve’s amendment and the news from the ECJ may have carried a dim, silver lining for the prime minister as she seeks to persuade MPs to back her deal. They strengthen her argument that rejecting her deal could lead to a reversal of Brexit if a majority of MPs rules out leaving without a deal.
That majority against a no-deal Brexit revealed itself on Tuesday in a way that could help moderate Brexiteers fall into line behind the prime minister. The threat of reversing Brexit may not be potent enough to secure a majority next week but it could help to keep the defeat within the bounds that would give May’s deal and her premiership a chance of staying alive.