Despite Commons defeats for Theresa May, the odds of a no-deal Brexit are still rising

No matter how much noise MPs make, the UK is leaving the EU on 29 March with or more likely without a deal. 

NS

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

Time to party like it’s 1979? Theresa May’s minority government is looking very shonky indeed after it endured three humiliating parliamentary defeats in 63 minutes yesterday. The Prime Minister will want to avoid the papers and skip straight to her sudoku this morning. “The Day May Lost Control” says the Telegraph. “May suffers worst Commons defeats by PM in 40 years” notes the Times. “PM’s Darkest May On Brexit,” says the Sun.

You get the idea. It was a long and bruising day even by the standards of recent weeks. First one-time national treasure Geoffrey Cox went from Mufasa to the Hooded Claw after MPs voted to find the government in contempt of parliament over its refusal to share the attorney general’s legal advice on the Withdrawal Agreement. It’s a move without precedent in modern history but save for forcing the government to publish its advice this morning it all adds up to very little.

What is really exciting MPs – and dominating the papers this morning – is the defeat that followed, which saw Dominic Grieve and dozens more Tory rebels successfully amend the procedure of the meaningful vote to allow MPs to amend the plan B the government is obliged to present to parliament once it loses next Tuesday.

The big and by now familiar lesson from yesterday and indeed the past fortnight is that the government can’t command a reliable majority on anything, especially when it’s Brexity – the DUP and two Tory Brexiteers voted for Labour’s contempt motion. We also know that the vast majority of MPs hate May’s plan and don’t want a no-deal scenario either. So the upshot of Grieve’s amendment is that MPs now have the means, motive and opportunity to impose their will on the government. Cue declarations that parliament has taken back control and that no-deal has been taken off the table.

Is that really true? It’s worth noting that Tory Brexiteers are intensely relaxed – or at least are doing passable impressions of people who are intensely relaxed. They say any motions passed by MPs in that scenario will have no binding legal force, which is true. Hopes that the threat of Grieve’s amendment will convince a game-changing number of Tory Brexiteers to recant and back May’s deal are misplaced (several more have come out against it since last night). But it’s also true that they will be very difficult for the government to ignore, especially if it wants to, you know, govern.

The bigger problem for those who wish to prevent a no-deal scenario is that the only thing that’s binding the government at present is the Article 50 process and the raft of domestic legislation connected to it on our statute book. In that sense, parliament has about as much ability to change the destination as the Platt family did when Richard Hillman set off in the direction of his local canal.

The only inevitability, no matter how much noise MPs make after Tuesday, is that the UK is leaving the EU on 29 March with or more likely without a deal. No matter how many motions for Norway the Commons passes, that won’t change. And talk of a latent majority for Norway ignores the fact that Labour could never whip for it and many Tory Remainers like Sam Gyimah prefer a second referendum on sovereignty grounds. And the problem with the likes of Gyimah and Jo Johnson is that they are no longer in the government – which has to table the legislation to make the thing happen and can’t without blowing up the Conservative Party.

Until the government changes its policy – or we change government – that won’t change. Given the likelihood of a confidence motion and Nigel Dodds’s ominous warning that the DUP are up for an election yesterday, the latter is looking more and more likely. But until either of those fundamental legislative truths changes, the only way is exit, and a painful one at that.

Patrick Maguire is the New Statesman's political correspondent.