Theresa May’s defeat confirms that the only way to pass a Brexit deal is with Labour votes

The Conservative Party cannot unify around an achievable Brexit strategy.

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The government has been defeated in the House of Commons in a vote that underlines the central dynamic of the Brexit process: that the only Brexit end state capable of commanding a majority in the House of Commons with the votes of the Conservatives and the DUP alone cannot come via negotiation with the European Union.

Theresa May lost because her most committed Brexiteers abstained on a non-binding vote that appeared to endorse both Parliament’s commitment to avoiding no deal and Parliament’s vote to pursue a deal like May’s, minus the backstop which ensures no change on the border between Northern Ireland and Ireland.  

But there can be no negotiated accord with the European Union that does not contain some provision to protect the status quo on the Irish border, for two reasons: the first is that the Irish government has a veto on the final trade agreement, the second, and arguably more important, is that the EU cannot risk its future by prioritising the needs of a state that is leaving the project over one that is staying within it. 

So what next? May has ruled out supporting any of the cross-party initiatives that might provide an enduring majority to resolve the Brexit deadlock. MPs have demonstrated that there is no majority to throw the Brexit question back to the people again, that there is no majority for the deal negotiated by May.

At this point, it doesn’t matter that Parliament has consistently voted to prevent no deal – what matters is that it has never voted for anything that can credibly be said to stand in its place. The  only negotiated Brexit that can pass the House of Commons will be one that is capable of winning over significant numbers of Labour MPs – and with a Prime Minister who has shown no inclination to do so, Conservative backbenchers who have yet to put words into action and force her hand, it is not clear that such a Brexit can be found.

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.