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15 January 2019

With tonight’s meaningful vote unlikely to pass, a no-deal Brexit is becoming more likely

The withdrawal agreement looks to be dead in the water, as Westminster becomes ever more dysfunctional.

By Stephen Bush

The only question at Westminster: will the defeat of the withdrawal agreement be exceptionally, or merely very large? The EU-UK exit deal is set to be rejected by MPs and already minds are turning to what will happen next.

The Telegraph reports that Labour will immediately table a vote of no confidence in the government, but I’m told that the timing of any such vote is still up in the air.

I’d be surprised if Corbyn did because a) there is no prospect of that vote being won yet and b) once the confidence motion has been and gone, the pressure will increase for the Labour Party to come out in support of a referendum re-run, something that Corbyn is reluctant to do.

That speaks to the biggest and most troubling Brexit sub-plot: with little over 50 working days until we are set to leave the EU under the Article 50 process, Westminster’s politics are becoming more, not less, dysfunctional.

On the Conservative side, the withdrawal agreement is dead in the water and the latest proposal to save it – Andrew Murrison’s amendment to insist that the backstop be time-limited – is a route to no deal by other means as it is unacceptable to Ireland and therefore to the EU27. Far from moving away from fantastical ideas that won’t work, the governing party is going in the opposite direction, with 12 Tory MPs signing a letter that goes beyond even the demands of the ERG leadership, which already cannot be met by any negotiated deal.

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Whether by accident or by design (and from my conversations with many of the Labour MPs in question it seems like the latter), May has done a good job of picking up support from Labour MPs in heavily Leave constituencies who fear being seen to soften Brexit. But there aren’t enough of that group to compensate for the number of Brexit ultras on the Tory side, let alone the more unusual Conservative rebels.

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On the Labour side, the People’s Vote campaign is no closer to either having the numbers within the parliamentary Labour Party to secure a second vote or to having the buy-in from the party leadership to get a second referendum. But they have managed to raise the political temperature around Corbyn and Brexit, which makes it difficult to see how the Labour leader can do anything to secure a Brexit deal that doesn’t cause him political damage. That the Labour leadership has raised hopes that they might get an election out of all this also makes it hard, perhaps impossible, for Labour to do anything to resolve the Brexit crisis in this parliament. This all incentivises Labour to run down the clock, increasing the chances of no deal.

It may be that the vote tonight – 7pm GMT, available on parliament’s website and the iPlayer – clarifies minds and allows cross-party alliances to break into open cover. But as it stands, the politics of Brexit look to be getting knottier, and the possibility of no deal rising as a result.