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13 March 2019

No, Brexit isn’t dead. But a negotiated exit deal might be

To truly take a no-deal Brexit off the table, the Commons would have to incur the political pain of deciding what it is for, rather than what it opposes.

By Patrick Maguire

MPs have voted down Theresa May’s Brexit deal for the second time – by a thumping margin of 149 votes. What happens now?

Westminster’s favourite refrain is that nobody has a clue where things will eventually end up, but we at least can say with some confidence what will happen today: MPs will vote against leaving the EU without a deal.

Or will they? As of 7am, we know now a bit more about how that scenario would look in practice: a “smuggler’s paradise” in Northern Ireland, where the UK would unilaterally waive checks on goods crossing the border, and what the CBI calls a “sledgehammer” to the economy in the form of the  temporary removal of tariffs on 87 per cent of imports.

But despite its attempt to put the screws on MPs, today’s government motion is a curious thing. If passed, it would both confirm parliament’s opposition to a no-deal Brexit and note that it remained the legal default on 29 March. That slightly confused proposition reflects the feeling among many Tories that retaining the ability to jump over the cliff is a vital negotiating tactic. But with just 16 days to go, that isn’t the unequivocal rejection that Tory Remainers and opposition MPs want and we can expect that coalition of the unwilling to approve an amendment from Labour’s Jack Dromey and Tory Caroline Spelman, ruling out no-deal in any circumstances.

That, for some reason, has prompted a great deal of excitement and gnashing of teeth. There is talk of the amendment taking no-deal “completely off the table” and one Leave-supporting minister even told Newsnight that it meant Brexit was dead. It doesn’t, and it isn’t, for the simple reason that even at this late stage, the Commons is unwilling to incur the political pain of deciding what it is for, rather than what it opposes. If it really wants to stop no-deal two Fridays from now, it will have to actively vote for something else: an Article 50 extension or a deal.

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An unlikely alliance of hard Brexiteers, Conservative Remainers and the DUP believe they have found the answer in an amendment seeking approval for the latest iteration of the so-called Malthouse Compromise. It proposes an extension of Article 50 to May 23rd – the hard deadline before the European Parliament elections – and a sweetener of cash and assurances on citizens’ rights in exchange for a two-year transition period. It all sounds terribly sensible but for the fact the EU has never been willing to entertain it. But even at this late stage it is gaining traction among Tory MPs, which serves to illustrate the extent to which this parliament is only really willing to unite around two things: vague statements of opposition and solutions that don’t exist.

As the exasperation of the EU27 boils over, that isn’t a great signal to be sending to Brussels, which is making increasingly clear that any Article 50 extension the Commons votes for on Thursday will need to serve a constructive purpose – be it hammering out some identifiable new deal, a new election or a referendum – and not simply give MPs more time to disagree. The EU’s willingness to make today’s vote against no-deal actually work on terms that are acceptable to the UK, short of ratifying a deal, can’t be taken for granted. The worrying thing is that in Westminster, it is. Brexit isn’t dead, but it feels increasingly like a negotiated one could be.