Britain heads for no deal as MPs gamble on Brexit

Nervous Labour and Conservative MPs believe they will get another chance to stop no deal – but they could be taking a big risk.

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Jeremy Corbyn’s motion to prevent a no-deal Brexit has been defeated in the House of Commons by 309 votes to 298. Although a substantial number of Conservative MPs rebelled to vote for Corbyn’s motion, they were cancelled out by Labour MPs going the other way: at least three deliberately abstained, while several more voted with the government.

Are we headed for a no-deal exit? The coalition that defeated this bill looks very similar to the one that defeated Yvette Cooper’s first attempt to prevent a no-deal exit in January 2019: some Conservative rebels sat on their hands while a significant group of Labour MPs voted against. The private reasoning then among that group was that a no-deal exit was months away, and they had the chance of voting for a Brexit deal – there was no need to risk the anger of their own local Conservative associations or their own voters just yet.

And once again, the same argument is being made in private: no deal has to be avoided, yes, but 31 October – the date when, in the absence of agreement, the United Kingdom will leave the European Union, with a deal or without – is months away. There is no reason, so the argument runs, that a deal cannot be reached – and in any case, there will be other opportunities to prevent no deal.

That the margin of defeat is significantly smaller than the Cooper amendment shows that there is a majority to be found in the Commons to prevent a no deal exit. But the Labour MPs who sat it out today are taking a big gamble that they will have another opportunity to vote for a deal, and another opportunity to prevent no deal. We might yet look back at this vote as the moment that parliament failed to act to prevent a no-deal Brexit.

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.