The Brexit deadlock is worse than ever. How can it be broken?

MPs don’t want an election or a second referendum. But something is going to have to give.

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

Parliament’s second round of indicative votes ended in much the same way as its first: with no Brexit option capable of commanding a majority of those MPs voting, let alone a majority of the whole House.

The failure this time is more significant because while everyone expected that the first set of indicative votes would yield no alternative Brexit outcome, the hope was that this set would be able to produce a majority for something.

Remember that the cabinet was whipped to abstain on these indicative votes, and the best case scenario is that a majority of the cabinet would vote against any Brexit end state that keeps the United Kingdom in a closer relationship with the EU than the one envisaged by Theresa May.

To be able to command the majority necessary not only to win a one-off vote about the resolution to the Brexit end state but to pass the necessary legislation you need an enduring majority of the whole House – that’s 320 votes. It also needs to be able to secure the support of a decent-sized chunk of the governing Conservatives.

None of the options that MPs voted down last night are close to that point, and none of them have a credible path to get there. The customs union option got the closest to passing yesterday, but only did so by picking up the votes of both committed supporters of a second referendum and devout opponents. Take either away and it can’t pass.

Among the various Brexit factions, there is a blame game between the advocates of a soft Brexit and the supporters of a second vote. It’s the fault of Labour supporters of a second vote for sitting out the vote on the customs union or the vote to keep the United Kingdom in the single market and customs union. It’s the fault of the SNP and Plaid Cymru for only voting for the single market and customs union and giving the customs union a miss. It’s the fault of the Liberal Democrats and the artists formerly known as TIG, now Change UK, for voting against every flavour of Brexit. It’s Jeremy Corbyn’s fault for not whipping hard enough and allowing shadow ministers to remain on his frontbench despite defying the whip.

Nick Boles, one of the architects of the Norway Plus proposals to keep the UK in the single market and customs union after Brexit, has blamed his own party and has quit the Conservatives as a result. He will sit as an independent “progressive Conservative” for the remainder of the parliament – however long it lasts.

Who’s to blame? When one talks about the need for compromise, it’s worth remembering that Labour, the SNP and Plaid Cymru have already made pretty big compromises. Labour has now backed a second referendum and the continuation of the free movement of people after Brexit on the floor of the House, both positions that, rightly or wrongly, many at the top of the party believe could cost it at the next election. The SNP was willing to risk the loss of two very effective weapons – the argument that Brexit is happening without their consent, and that Scottish MPs cannot be influential in Westminster – in the fight for their big cause in voting for a Norway Plus Brexit. Again, that’s a position that many in the party believe will exert a hefty electoral price.

As far as the Liberal Democrats and Change UK are concerned, there’s expecting parties to make reasonable compromises and then there’s expecting them to make potentially party-killing concessions. Bluntly expecting the Liberal Democrats to turn to Remainers four years after the coalition and confirm that their worst fears about the party were correct is a party-killing concession, while for Change UK it risks stifling their new party at birth.

Boles has the right of it, in that the thing that truly stymied a way forward yesterday was that the Conservative Party’s whipping operation did successfully cap the number of Conservative MPs voting for any Brexit resolution at 37. That makes it hard to see how any resolution to the Brexit crisis can command a parliamentary majority or sufficient executive buy-in to pass.

What’s next? One possibility is an election, so that the deadlock between the governing party and parliament can be resolved one way or the other. But it isn’t clear that it would be and many Conservative MPs are opposed to an election that they believe would end in catastrophic defeat.

But there is going to have to be some kind of external event to shake the political deadlock and the other option – a second referendum – is also bitterly opposed by most Conservative MPs.

So what are MPs going to pick in a choice between two routes out that they don’t want? It’s impossible to say: unless the EU27 decide that the only way out is to present the UK with a final choice between Theresa May’s deal and no deal at all.

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.

Free trial CSS