Theresa May suffers fresh Brexit challenge with House of Lords defeat over EU withdrawal bill

It came on the anniversary of May’s “I'm just a girl, standing in front of the electorate, asking them to crush the saboteurs” routine.

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It never rains but it pours: as if the ongoing crisis over the government's treatment of Windrush Britons wasn't bad enough, now Theresa May has suffered a major defeat in the House of Lords, with the Upper House voting by a heavy margin to ask the government what it is doing to keep the United Kingdom in some form of customs union.

While the government only has to do is account for itself, it gives the elected chamber an opportunity to assert itself and for the pro-customs union majority of MPs to enforce their will upon the government.

The defeat – taking place exactly a year to the day that Theresa May stood in front of Downing Street and did her whole “I'm just a girl, standing in front of the electorate, asking them to crush the saboteurs” routine – is a reminder that calling the election wasn't May's mistake. The teeny-tiny majority she inherited from David Cameron was never going to be big enough for her version of Brexit to prevail.

Her mistake was in the conduct of the campaign and the manifesto that followed. Spencer Livermore, who ran Labour's campaign in 2015, once wrote that the problem with the 2015 campaign was that Ed Miliband had an ideological project rather than an electoral one. Similarly, in 2017, Theresa May had an ideological project – the idea that Leave voting Labourites “should” vote Tory – rather than an electoral project.

The costs in terms of her reputation and her ability to pass her domestic agenda are already well-known. It may be that by the time the anniversary of that exit poll, the costs to her Brexit agenda are also clear. 

Stephen Bush is political editor of the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.