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14 December 2017

Does the government’s Commons defeat mean Brexit can be stopped?

How big of a deal is the defeat on a so-called “meaningful vote” on the exit agreement?

By Stephen Bush

The government has suffered its first big defeat in parliament since the election, after MPs voted narrowly to secure ministers’ guarantee of a meaningful vote on the Brexit deal in law.

There are a few minor subplots to note. The first is that when the question is one of scrutiny rather than anything that could actually stop Brexit, Labour can hold its MPs together. Of the Labour leavers, just Kate Hoey and Frank Field voted with the government.

The second is that Theresa May’s capacity for self-harm hasn’t gone away. This was a defeat that you could see coming from space and it doesn’t bode well for the government’s attempt to write the date of Brexit into law, an even more pointless battle as the date of Brexit is set by Article 50, which has already been triggered, and can only be stopped through revocation which is a whole other matter entirely.

The third is that while Gavin Williamson’s self-mythologising is easy to mock, he was able to navigate these tricky waters with more care than new Chief Whip Julian Smith has managed. The number of stories leaking about bad behaviour from Tory whips is a testament to an operation that tried bullying tactics and got them badly wrong. It suggests that there will be a lot more of these nights down the line.

But those are just the subplots. What about the main event: how big of a deal is the government’s defeat last night over a so-called “meaningful vote” on the exit agreement?

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Well, if you believe the Mail, very. That paper takes aim at the 11 Conservative MPs who joined Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the SNP, Plaid Cymru and Caroline Lucas in voting against the government, branding them “self-consumed malcontents” who have increased “the possibility of a Marxist in No 10”.

The frothier end of the pro-Brexit political class seems to agree: Nadine Dorries and Tim Montgomerie have both called for the dissidents to be deselected. 

The thing is, it’s still not clear what a “meaningful vote” looks like at the British end now that Article 50 has been triggered. Don’t forget that the agreement needs to be done and dusted by October 2018 so that it can be ratified by the European parliament and in some cases national parliaments. (It all depends on how much freedom each head of government has to do as they wish, which varies from country to country.)

As far as shaping the direction of the talks goes, the debate that parliament needs to involve itself in is the question of what the United Kingdom’s desired final relationship with the European Union looks like after Brexit. But the difficulty is that the coalition amassed yesterday is only a coalition for increasing the ability of the legislature to scrutinise what the executive is doing. It’s not really a coalition to shape Brexit and it certainly isn’t one to stop it or even really to soften it.

The significant victory is in the massive reduction in the ability of ministers to alter the terms of the withdrawal agreement at the eleventh hour without consulting parliament, and even then, that is somewhat limited thanks to the Article 50 process.

There’s a “but” coming, and it’s a big one: political prophecies have a tendency to be self-fulfilling. That Telegraph splash branding Conservative MPs “mutineers” before any of them not called Ken Clarke had so much as cast a vote in anger, made the decision to vote against the government significantly easier because the negative consequences had already happened.

Ditto, to be frank, if for the “crime” of turning verbal guarantees the government has already laid out into legal ones you are branded a “malcontent” on the front of the Mail, and Tim Montgomerie gets his pitchfork out (we also shouldn’t ignore that the language being used about these rebels is going to lead to them getting death threats) you might as well start rebelling on bigger and bigger issues. In fact, why confine yourself to Brexit?

So there’s a possibility that last night’s defeat is the spark that lights the fire that burns the whole of Brexit down, albeit a slim one. But here’s what’s not a slim possibility: that in treating their most committed pro-Europeans so shabbily, the Conservative Party and its allies in the press are going to do themselves a great deal of damage, whether it’s over Brexit or something else entirely.