Boris Johnson’s new Brexit deal was defeated in the Commons – but the manner, as much as the fact of it, is what is really significant.
The “how” had two dimensions, in that the government was defeated because Downing Street opted to treat Oliver Letwin’s amendment, which welcomed the deal but used a form of words that meant the government’s legal obligations under the Benn Act to seek an extension do not expire, as a hostile act.
As I explained yesterday, the political meaning of the amendment was very much up for grabs. The government could have tried to fight it off and then declared that it would treat the final vote as an “indicative” one to show whether a legislative majority for the deal existed, just as Theresa May’s government treated several votes on the Brady amendment (the doomed attempt to pass a Brexit deal minus an Irish border protocol) as “indicative”.
That option would have meant glowing headlines from the rightwing press and the BBC about Johnson securing a majority for his deal – I have no doubt whatsoever, from both watching the debate and from private conversations, that the deal would have banked enough Labour support to pass in that scenario – and Johnson could have presented today as a victory. It would have drawn the sting out of any extension request.
Instead it went for Option B: to declare that defeat on the motion meant that Parliament was delaying and wrecking Brexit, and went home in a huff. That means headlines from the BBC and the pro-Remain media about Boris Johnson being repudiated in the House of Commons and headlines in the rightwing press about the wicked Remainers and their perfidious ways.
There are two reasons to go for Option B: the first is that while Johnson himself is at his happiest sounding conciliatory and smoothing over hurt feelings – his eyes visibly lit up whenever he took a supportive intervention from one of the Conservatives he removed from the whip – his Downing Street team enjoys a fight. The second is that they hoped that in making the vote a straight choice between repudiating Brexit and backing Letwin, they could force a narrow parliamentary majority. That, of course, didn’t happen.
The reason it didn’t happen is worth noting too – it was defeated by three groups: the six Labour MPs who declared they would vote for this deal, who opted not to vote for the Letwin amendment, the seven pro-deal Conservatives sitting as independents, who had planned to vote for the deal but also for the Letwin amendment, and the DUP, who support Brexit but oppose this deal because it puts a regulatory and customs border in the Irish Sea. (Ten former Conservatives voted for the Letwin amendment but three of them want to stop Brexit and did so for that reason.)
The support of any one of those groups would have put it over the line. The DUP’s support is certain never to materialise for this deal. But the seven pro-deal, pro-Brexit Conservatives can be. They have won their great victory in ensuring that a no deal Brexit cannot happen whether by accident or via conspiracy. The same is true of the Labour MPs, like Sarah Champion, who declared that they would vote for the deal but voted for Letwin.
Boris Johnson has serious hopes of winning support for his deal when it comes back. There is just one problem for Johnson. A pro-Brexit parliamentary coalition that runs through Bill Cash and extends to Melanie Onn is impressive but unsafe at any speed. (Hell, a pro-Brexit parliamentary coalition that runs through Greg Clark and Bill Cash is going to have difficulties, too.) It was clear listening to the various interventions he was taking that while Conservative MPs can agree on the executive summary of his Brexit deal, they are going to begin to fall out once the questions about detail come up.
Taken with what must now be seen as the committed opposition of the DUP, Johnson is going to need a new parliament sooner rather than later to keep the show on the road.