This parliament will never ratify the withdrawal agreement. That’s the inescapable conclusion of the third defeat of Theresa May’s exit deal, this time after being split into two pieces, with the withdrawal agreement (the legally binding exit deal) hived off from the political declaration (the aspirational text about the eventual trade agreement the European Union and United Kingdom seek to negotiate).
Although Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg, the two most high-profile opponents to the accord, and Dominic Raab, the best hope Brexiteer ultras have of replacing May with one of their own, this time backed the deal, 28 committed pro-Brexit Conservatives voted against it, as did six Conservative MPs who back a second referendum. In addition, there were the ten DUP MPs whose concerns about the backstop cannot be assuaged through a negotiated accord with the European Union – at least, not one that is acceptable to Conservative MPs.
Taken together, that means that 45 Labour MPs would need to vote for the withdrawal agreement for the accord to pass by one vote. Just 27 Labour MPs defied a whip to back a second referendum, an issue that is much easier to defend to Labour Party activists. There is no realistic prospect of 45 Labour MPs ever being willing to back the withdrawal agreement – not least because as it stands, they will face credible accusations that in doing so they are frustrating a general election, with Labour’s leadership and activist base believe they can win.
It’s not clear if a majority for an alternative approach can be found. There are good reasons to doubt that any of the options rejected by MPs in this week’s indicative votes will ever be able to command a parliamentary majority; and if they do, there are good reasons to believe that they are unacceptable to the governing Conservatives.
As May hinted in her response to the defeat, it seems as if this parliament and the Brexit talks are running out of road. Another election feels more likely than ever.