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  1. Politics
  2. Brexit
4 April 2019updated 08 Jul 2021 2:03pm

The only thing that parliament comes close to agreeing on is to delay Brexit. But how long can that last?

By Stephen Bush

By just one vote, Yvette Cooper’s bill to mandate Theresa May to seek an extension to the Article 50 process passed – it now heads to the Lords, where it is expected to pass comfortably and easily. What should we make of it?

One reading is that Cooper’s bill won’t actually stop a no-deal Brexit – it will simply ask the EU27 for an extension, which may not be granted. The only real way to prevent no deal is to make revoking Article 50 the legal default. This bill fell far short of that hurdle, and yet it still only just managed to scrape through the Commons by a single vote. MPs will shirk away from anything more radical. The “this far, no further” grumbling from some Labour MPs, and the defeat of Cooper’s more ambitious original attempt in February, are good evidence of that. 

Another reading is that precisely because the bill fell short of anything that could reasonably stop no deal, the number of Conservative MPs voting against the government – still an impressive 14 – was smaller than it would be on a motion with real substance to it. And on that side, there is plenty of evidence to be found in the pool of occasional Tory rebels who didn’t rebel this time, many of whom privately critiqued the lack of ambition in Cooper’s bill.

But I don’t think either reading quite works. It’s true to say that yesterday underlined the difficulty of passing any Brexit resolution. It’s not clear that giving MPs a vote on the length of an extension proposed by May wouldn’t just be a recipe for disaster, if MPs fear that a long extension will mean she returns to the EU27 with a set of asks that cannot be met.

But equally, there are enough spare Conservative rebels available to compensate for any Labour MPs who fail to back anything more concrete than this bill. The important story of last night isn’t that the majority was tiny, but that it endured over the entire night despite its one function being to secure something that May has already promised. 

What yesterday shows is that it is difficult to secure anything other than a narrow majority for anything, but that the most viable majority – which may shed Labour rebels when too ambitious and lose Conservative rebels unless it is significant and vital – is the majority to delay the point of decision as far as the Brexit question goes. 

That will continue to be the case, until some event forces a decision on parliament or the electorate returns a parliament that can reach some kind of accord.  

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