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16 January 2019

Parliament is deadlocked. So what happens next for Brexit?

To escape a no deal, at least one key constituency in the Commons is going to have to act against their political interests.  

By Patrick Maguire

Nothing has changed. MPs gave Westminster its long-awaited moment of catharsis last night, voting to reject the Brexit deal negotiated by Theresa May by 432 votes to 202 in the largest parliamentary defeat in more than a century. The Prime Minister faces a vote of no confidence in her government tonight, but is going nowhere. So what now?

It’s a measure of just how unprecedented the situation before us is that the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act, which for months has functioned as May’s straitjacket, is now her lifebelt. Despite the lopsided scale of last night’s defeat, she can count on the support of the DUP and the Brexiteers on the Conservative benches. Jeremy Corbyn’s chances of success are effectively nil, as those close to him well know. Tonight’s result will merely affirm last night’s: the Commons is content to keep May in office but is nowhere near a consensus on how it might allow her to exercise it as far as Brexit is concerned.

Can the Prime Minister broker one? The short answer appears to be no. For about five seconds at the despatch box last night, it appeared that May might snap out of a lifetime of partisan truculence and attempt to come to some sort of accord with Labour. It soon became clear, however, that the “senior parliamentarians” she has pledged to meet do not include Jeremy Corbyn, and the offer she is currently willing to make will not include the big things that Labour MPs and the trades unions want, namely a permanent customs union with the EU.

That Downing Street was briefing that within minutes of the defeat – and cabinet ministers spinning the same line on the airwaves – suggests that in the short term they might struggle to convince many more members of the opposition than the three who voted for the withdrawal agreement last night. Something, most likely May’s attachment to an independent trade policy after Brexit, is going to have to give. Her spokesman insists it is a “principle” rather than an immovable red line. But for reasons of internal party management, it will be difficult for the Prime Minister to be the one who gives it up.

Nor, despite the increasingly forlorn hopes of pro-Europeans on the Labour benches, will Jeremy Corbyn drop his opposition to a second referendum once tonight’s confidence vote is lost. The message from his allies in public and private is that Labour intends to push its confidence vote again, again, again and again in the hope of peeling off the DUP and Tory Leavers, and failing that – as is likely – force a Brexit it can live with through the Commons somehow. The Labour leadership’s reluctance to be blamed for stopping Brexit – shared by many of its MPs – increases the chances of some sort of deal, probably with a radically revised political declaration, passing the Commons.

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But how either May or Corbyn arrives at that point without a fatal rupture within either of their parties or electoral coalitions is still unclear. Barring the EU27 agreeing to gut the withdrawal agreement, at least one key constituency in the Commons – either party leadership, advocates for a Norway-style deal, advocates for a second referendum, the DUP, hard Brexiteers – will have to decide to act against its obvious political interests if the UK is to leave the EU with a deal on March 29. Until that happens, MPs and the rest of us are merely trapped in a new holding pattern. Meanwhile, the Article 50 clock rattles heedlessly on. If MPs aren’t willing to endure the sort of political pain they have hitherto avoided for the sake of stopping a no-deal, they face a simple choice: run out of time, or give themselves more.

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