The House of Commons has voted against all of the resolutions available to resolve the Brexit crisis – much as we expected.
But what we expected tonight to yield was a clear idea of what Brexit resolution could command a majority once the most polarising options have been knocked out. Tonight half-delivered: the option that came the closest to passing the House of Commons was Ken Clarke’s motion to keep the United Kingdom in a customs union with the European Union, which came just eight votes short of passing the House, with 264 votes to 272.
But in a surprise result, it failed to deliver the expected knockout blow to a second referendum, which succeeded in winning more votes than any other proposal (268) but was also defeated more heavily (295 MPs voted against it) than several other options.
In a way that shouldn’t be overly surprising: we know that the possibility of stopping Brexit excites many more MPs than any other Brexit outcome, just as opposition to stopping Brexit motivates more MPs than any individual way to deliver Brexit.
That the Beckett amendment did so well is in part a consequence of the Article 50 revocation petition, which underlined for many MPs that, while the people who were motivated to write letters in their constituency voted heavily to leave, many more people in their seats had signed the petition to revoke Article 50. And the wording of the amendment meant that some Labour MPs believe that they can vote for a confirmatory referendum on the deal without going back on their promises not to block Brexit, as they will have voted to ratify a Brexit accord and to put the arrangement to a public vote.
But the difficulty for second referendum campaigners is that, while they have done very well to get to 268 MPs, it is difficult to see where the extra votes will come from. Just eight Conservative MPs voted for the Beckett amendment, and even with Labour whipping in favour, 47 Labour MPs voted against the whip, with 27 Labour MPs voting against Beckett and the remainder abstaining, including three members of the Shadow Cabinet – Jon Trickett, Andrew Gwynne and Ian Lavery.
However, the success of the second referendum campaign now means that is difficult to see where the additional votes for any other options will come from. The votes of Labour MPs who have backed a second vote but voted against the continuing membership of the customs union would have been enough to pass a vote in favour of a customs union. But the problem is that the House can’t simply opt for a customs union Brexit and a confirmatory vote, because 19 of the MPs to vote for a customs union voted against a second referendum.
The problem is that the option that is the most attractive to MPs is also the most repellent – and with just 18 days until the legal default of no deal, it is far from clear if this parliament can cohere around any other alternative. An eleciton feels likely – but the chances are that the next parliament will be no better equipped to resolve Brexit than this one.