The huge defeat suffered by Theresa May in the House of Commons at least clarifies what had long been thought – that a majority of British MPs oppose the withdrawal agreement. Whether enough MPs might change their mind to allow the deal to pass at a second or third time of asking is extremely doubtful, given the extraordinary scale of the vote against. A hapless government is left struggling to find a way forward, with the clock rapidly running down.
The prime minister vows to fight on, but the vote has severely compromised what little is left of her authority. Her first task is to survive a vote of confidence on Wednesday which has been tabled by Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, who – like the government – has failed to present a coherent view on Brexit or face up to the essential trade-offs.
Time is now running very short, with the UK due to leave at the end of March. The first job is to avoid a potentially chaotic no-deal exit. This is the inevitable outcome if nothing is done to stop it. The strong indications from the House of Commons that this is not what a majority of MPs want are welcome, but must lead to action.
Holding a second referendum is the clearest way to establish the will of the British people now that the real consequences of Brexit and the choices it creates are becoming clear. The other EU members would surely agree to extend the UK’s departure date under article 50 to allow this to happen. However, the route to a second poll remains unclear with the Conservatives trying to hold on to power and Labour’s priority being to force a general election.
If she survives, Theresa May could also seek to build a wider consensus in the House of Commons, possibly seeking to attract Labour support via a commitment to a softer version of Brexit. She suggested after the vote that she would consult across parliament, though she may have left it too late. She may also seek further concessions from Brussels to try to build support either within her own party or more widely. These routes, too, are fraught with difficulty, though a change of approach towards a softer version of Brexit could win support from the Labour benches.
It is clear that the UK government’s existing approach is not working and – if continued – risks leaving us with the kind of no-deal exit everybody wants to avoid. Theresa May says that her government’s intention is not to run down the clock, but this is precisely what it is doing. This has led to the massive defeat in the House of Commons and has prompted MPs to try to take a more directional role.
If she wins the vote of confidence, Theresa May has committed to return with a plan by next Monday. A way forward will be hard to find. And even if one does emerge, would it reflect the will of a majority of the people? The only way to be sure is to hold a second referendum.