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29 January 2019

Parliament can agree it hates no deal – but not on a way to prevent it

The only question now is whether or not a majority can be formed for a negotiated Brexit, or whether we leave without a deal.

By Stephen Bush

Brexit is going to happen, with the only question being on what terms it will happen. That’s the inescapable conclusion of tonight’s votes, which saw MPs reject three amendments to exert even a measure of direct control over the process.

Jeremy Corbyn’s amendment was the first to be defeated, and even its suggestion of a second vote was too strong to retain the support of every Labour MP. Two further amendments, each with legislative force – Dominic Grieve’s and Yvette Cooper’s – were then rejected by comfortable majorities.

Although 17 Conservative MPs rebelled against the government whip to support both Grieve and Cooper’s amendments, they were cancelled out by Labour rebels going the opposite way, with 16 Labour MPs voting against the government and others abstaining.

The defeat of Cooper’s amendment, which was the heavier defeat of the pair, is especially significant. The hope among Parliament’s supporters of a soft Brexit (and indeed, among those supporting no Brexit at all) was that Cooper was well-placed to reach over and reassure Labour MPs who voted to Remain and represent constituencies that, like hers, voted to leave by an outsized margin. Cooper has personally committed to implement Brexit and favours, like Corbyn, a Brexit where the United Kingdom remains within the customs union and leaves the single market.

But although those personal credentials helped persuade some, they weren’t enough. Opponents of the deal included Jim Fitzpatrick, John Mann and Ian Austin, who all supported Cooper’s bid for the 2015 leadership.

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Frankly, if there is not a majority to be found at this stage even for extending the Article 50 process due to concerns about the impact at a constituency level, there is not going to be a majority for a second referendum even as the prospect of a no deal exit hoves into view – although MPs may yet vote for an extension if the cliff-edge gets closer.

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Parliament doesn’t know much about Brexit, but it knows what it dislikes: it doesn’t want a no deal Brexit, and it doesn’t want a backstop arrangement for the Irish border, without which there cannot be a deal.

So what’s going to give? As the cliff-edge gets closer, MPs will have to focus in on how to prevent no deal; but the reality is that a Parliament that is hesitant even to delay Brexit when the cliff-edge is a little over 50 days away is not going to stop Brexit anytime soon.

What feels likeliest now is that Parliament’s desire to avoid a no deal Brexit means that it ends up voting for something that looks an awfully lot like May’s deal. The only open question is whether or not Jeremy Corbyn can succeed in retaining Britain’s membership of the customs union after Brexit.