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14 March 2019

Four things we learnt from tonight’s Brexit vote

There's no majority for a second referendum, but the Independent Group got what it needed from this vote.

By Stephen Bush

There is no majority for a second referendum

A great deal of attention was given in the run-up to today’s votes to the amendment tabled by Westminster’s newest political party, the Independent Group, to seek a long enough extension to hold a fresh referendum on the United Kingdom’s membership of the European Union. The amendment, which was co-signed by all of Parliament’s out-and-out anti-Brexit parties – the Welsh and Scottish nationalists, the Liberal Democrats, the sole Green MP Caroline Lucas, and of course the TIG – was the first real test of whether there are the votes to be found in Parliament for a second referendum.

The People’s Vote campaign, the largest of the various cross-party organisations calling for a fresh vote on Britain’s membership of the European Union, called on MPs to abstain, as did the Labour party. Both organisations had slightly different reasons: the People’s Vote campaign believe that they can only succeed if MPs are faced with a straight choice between a no deal exit and a fresh referendum, while the Labour leadership know that a whip in favour of a fresh referendum would result in resignations from the Shadow Cabinet and frontbench, and fear that it would doom their electoral hopes into the bargain.

In the event, 43 Labour MPs broke the whip, with 25 voting for the amendment and 18 voting against, and the amendment was heavily defeated, with 334 votes to just 85.

This shouldn’t need saying but if 334 MPs vote against a measure, it doesn’t matter what the other 316 MPs do, as 334 is a majority. Whether Labour MPs abstain or not, there is not a majority to be found in this parliament for a second referendum.

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In a measure of the scale of the defeat, Chris Bryant, one MP who supports a referendum re-run, declined to move the amendment he had laid down to prevent Theresa May bringing her motion back to the House of Commons, a move designed to prevent the Prime Minister from bringing her deal back to the House time and time again until she wins a majority.

Many supporters of a second referendum know all too well that they themselves may ultimately now be forced into voting for May’s deal to prevent no deal.

TIG got what they needed out of this vote

Seconds after Wollaston’s amendment was defeated, TIG sent out an email to their supporters that “Labour’s Leaders Let You Down”, adding that it was thanks to Labour’s decision to abstain that the amendment did not pass. The other anti-Brexit parties did so almost as quickly.

Again, to repeat: there are 650 MPs in the Commons. To win a majority you need half of that plus one, i.e, 326. 334 is more than 326 so regardless of whether or not the Labour party’s official line had been to abstain or not. It is not true that the abstention caused the amendment to pass.

But it is a well-worn tactic of parties who are running against the system – which TIG, with their repeated refrain that “politics is broken” and that all three major parties have failed, are explicitly doing – to pretend otherwise and an even older tactic to use parliamentary votes to get your opponents to occupy positions are somehow uncomfortable for them.

No-one really thought there was a serious hope or prospect of the vote passing tonight regardless of how Labour whipped, and the reality is that the big aim was for the SNP, Plaid Cymru, TIG, the Liberal Democrats and the Greens to get their hostile leaflet out of this, to better take votes off the Labour party.

Mission accomplished.

But the nationalist parties are the ones with the capacity to do real damage to Labour as it stands

Although TIG are the new shiny party on the block, it is striking to look at where many of the 25 Labour MPs who voted for a second referendum came from. Six of the 25 have seats in Wales while three of the seven Scottish Labour MPs broke the whip to vote for another vote.

MPs in both the SNP and Plaid Cymru are in good spirits at the moment and if the polls are to be believed they have good reason to be. They are taking Remain voters from Labour. In Wales, that their newish leader Adam Price is currently the most popular politician in the country and has changed the mood music around their party only adds to Plaid Cymru’s mood. (In Scotland, the SNP takes no small joy from the fact that Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard hasn’t changed the mood music.)

No deal is back on the table

It’s always where you left it, isn’t it?