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13 March 2019

MPs know what they don’t want from Brexit – but are no closer to knowing what they do

There is a large majority to deplore a no deal Brexit. It isn't clear there is a majority for anything that would actually stop it.

By Stephen Bush

The government has been defeated twice over in the House of Commons, as MPs voted in favour of an amendment tabled by Yvette Cooper to amend the government’s motion on no deal, and again on the motion as a whole.

Does it matter? The government’s original motion read like this:

“This House declines to approve leaving the EU without a Withdrawal Agreement and a Framework on the Future Relationship on 29 March 2019; and notes that leaving without a deal remains the default in UK and EU law unless this House and the EU ratify an agreement.”

And now thanks to its successful amendment it reads like this:

“This House declines to approve leaving the EU without a Withdrawal Agreement and a Framework on the Future Relationship.”

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The legal reality is that under the Article 50 process, the United Kingdom will leave on 29 March 2019 at midnight Brussels time, regardless of whether it has ratified an accord with the European Union at all. To prevent that Parliament needs to do two things. It must remove the exit date from the British statute book and then vote to do either of the following: ratify a withdrawal agreement with the European Union or revoke Article 50. Voting to extend Article 50 changes the date that the United Kingdom will leave but it does not change the choice that needs to be made, any more than choosing to jump off a higher cliff frees you from the decision to hit the ground hard or to open your parachute.

MPs can – and did – amend out the 26 words highlighting that but they have not yet done anything to change that legal reality. So does what happened today matter at all?

The answer is “yes, but only a little bit”. MPs have consistently shown a willingness to vote for measures that declare their intention to avoid the cliff-edge but have equally consistently rejected everything that would actually avoid the cliff-edge. They have voted down, in no particular order: measures to keep the United Kingdom in the EEA, measures to hold a second referendum, the Brexit proposals of Jeremy Corbyn, the withdrawal agreement negotiated by Theresa May. They even voted down Yvette Cooper’s motion to seek an extension and to amend the relevant legislation to strike out the exit date.

What is significant today is that the much-hyped move from Remainers on the Conservative frontbench finally arrived. Four Cabinet ministers – Amber Rudd, Greg Clark, David Mundell and David Gauke – all abstained rather than vote against the motion as instructed by Theresa May. They were joined by a host of junior ministers who did the same.

But the problem is that even among today’s frontbench rebels you have a variety of views. You have people who would like another referendum and to throw the question back to the people. You have people who are viscerally opposed to another referendum but believe no deal would be a national calamity that shatters the country and the Conservative Party.

That dynamic is repeated across the House. The government was defeated by a coalition that includes Stephen Lloyd, the Eastbourne Liberal Democrat who promised his constituents he would never vote for a second referendum and 35 SNP MPs who were elected pledging to keep Scotland in the United Kingdom. It ran through the seven Labour MPs who left Labour to found the Independent Group in part because of their support for a second referendum, and the seven Labour shadow frontbenchers who abstained on Cooper’s amendment to delay Article 50 because they feared it would open them up to one.

This is many things but it isn’t – yet – a majority to do anything concrete to stop no deal.

That’s one of two reasons why the hardline Brexiteers in the European Research Group still have reasons to be cheerful. The first is that, so far, the only legally binding Brexit decision MPs have taken is to trigger Article 50 and enshrine that date into law. They retain the fallback option of supporting May’s deal at a third meaningful vote and that is one route that several pro-Brexit MPs have tonight told me they will now take.

For Theresa May, it means paradoxically she ends a day of defeat in possession of not one but two cliff-edges. The cliff-edge of a no deal Brexit has not yet been removed and she will still hope that will bring enough pro-European MPs into the fold. But she now has another cliff-edge: the possibility, however distant, that MPs will be able to cohere behind something that actually stops no deal. If either threat becomes real enough, she might still find that a majority arises for her deal.