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30 January 2019

What last night’s votes tell us about the future of Brexit

If a no-deal is to be avoided, either the Tories or Labour must incur the political pain of a deal that is acceptable to enough Labour MPs.

By Patrick Maguire

MPs have voted to contradict themselves again. Having voted to reject the principle of a no-deal Brexit – but not for anything that could actually stop it – the Commons instructed Theresa May to adopt a negotiating position that is all but guaranteed to engineer one. What happens now?

The passage of Graham Brady’s government-backed plan to reopen the withdrawal agreement and replace the Irish backstop with something nicer has, for some reason, been chalked up as a victory for the Prime Minister. In reality, it is the exception that proves the rule: the only Brexit position around which she can unite the bulk of her own MPs and the DUP is one that she knows can’t survive any exposure to Brussels.

May’s old gambit – sorry, the new one – had already been trashed by the EU27 before last night’s results were in, and will get the same treatment from European leaders today. While it isn’t inconceivable that they might agree to bolt on new legal assurances to the divorce treaty to stress the backstop should be temporary, whatever they are willing to give will be less than what the Prime Minister’s own side wants and it is unlikely they will exert themselves to provide a compromise that will be rejected by the ERG anyway. And Tory Brexiteers, as ever, forget that the UK is neither the only party to the negotiation nor the only country that might want changes to the withdrawal agreement in the unlikely event it is ever reopened.

So the Conservative Party’s preferred Brexit doesn’t exist, and nor does Theresa May’s majority (the Pope, I hear, is also Catholic). But the defeat of Yvette Cooper’s plan to allow MPs to demand an Article 50 extension means a mechanism to stop no-deal doesn’t either. Unless, of course, it’s voting for the Prime Minister’s deal.

Could it ever happen? What last night’s vote did show us is what MPs, particularly Labour MPs, are not willing to do: stop Brexit, delay Brexit, or anything that might vaguely resemble either of the two. Seven Labour MPs defied the whip to vote for the Brady amendment, while a further seven from Leave-voting constituencies in the North and Midlands joined them to vote against Cooper’s plan to delay Brexit day. Another 11, including five frontbenchers, abstained.

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The Labour leadership’s prevarication over the Cooper amendment – and the fact they only whipped for it with a hefty caveat – also tells us that they are incredibly reluctant to go down that road too. Nor, on last night’s evidence, will they be forced to by parliamentary arithmetic or internal pressure. Jeremy Corbyn’s belated decision to meet Theresa May for talks on Brexit reflects that fundamental truth.

In a Commons that doesn’t want no deal but is too squeamish to delay Brexit, and with a Conservative Party whose demands can’t be met, the only deal that can pass is one that is acceptable to enough Labour MPs. Whether either party leader is willing to incur the political pain that outcome will cause is now the only question that really matters ahead of 29 March.

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