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12 March 2019

Theresa May has been defeated again, but this time, she isn’t the one in denial

MPs need to face up to the consequences of their own decision to pass Article 50 unamended.

By Stephen Bush

Theresa May’s virtually unchanged Brexit deal went down to a virtually unchanged result: triple-digit defeat in the House of Commons, again, albeit down to 149 votes from 232. At the present rate of movement, there will be a parliamentary majority for the withdrawal agreement – it’s just going to take another 23 votes and 46 months.

The bad news is that the United Kingdom is set to leave the European Union in 17 days, whether it does so having reached an accord with the European Union or not. The only way to avoid that is for MPs to either pass the withdrawal agreement into law or vote to revoke Article 50 and to amend the relevant legislation to strike the exit date from British law. An extension does not avert no deal – it merely postpones the moment that the UK reaches the cliff.

But it is the reaction of MPs, rather than the ticking clock itself, that is particularly alarming.

To avert a Cabinet rebellion, May pledged to allow the House of Commons two further votes this week: the first, to be held tomorrow, on whether or not to support leaving the EU without a deal, the second, on whether to seek an extension of the Article 50 process. (Although revocation is the hands of the departing member state alone, extension can only be done with the unanimous approval of all 28 member states of the EU.) The first of those two motions reads as follows:

“This House declines to approve leaving the EU without a Withdrawal Agreement and a Framework on the Future Relationship on 29 March 2019; and notes that leaving without a deal remains the default in UK and EU law unless this House and the EU ratify an agreement.”

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In English, that means that MPs would be voting to say that they don’t want to leave with no deal but that they know that as it stands a no deal exit is the default scenario. May’s motion has the same impact as far as “preventing no deal” does as any of the various attempts to “take no deal off the table” put forward by various backbenchers: that is to say, none whatsoever.

Her motion, unless amended, has no more force and will have no more impact than if MPs voted against the forces of gravity. You cannot vote against falling off the cliff when you have already jumped off the cliff, which is what MPs did when they voted to trigger Article 50 back in 2017. You can only vote to open your parachute – that is to say, for either an exit deal or to revoke Article 50.

The only real way to “take no deal off the table” is with legislation saying that in the event no accord has been ratified by 29 March, Article 50 will be revoked. None of the MPs who have brought legislation forward to “stop no deal” have done anything even remotely close to that.

So it is somewhat troubling that with 17 days until the exit, Yvette Cooper, who has been the architect of multiple attempts to “stop no deal” is describing May’s motion as “unclear”, and that this comment was received largely sympathetically. It is possible to believe that both May’s motion to prevent no deal and Cooper’s various amendments to do the same are inadequate. It is not possible to believe that only one of the two efforts are inadequate as neither gets close to actually preventing no deal.

The reason why so many at Westminster and beyond believe that “no deal” ultimately won’t happen is that MPs – the majority of whom are opposed to a non-negotiated exit – will cohere around one method or another of stopping it.

The trouble is that it is visibly clear that there is not a majority for May’s deal. Parliament narrowly rejected even Cooper’s measures to delay the cliff-edge and it is not clear that there is a majority to be found even to change the legal default, let alone to throw out Brexit entirely or even to ask the voters to weigh in on the Brexit question.

To repeat: it is 17 days away from a no deal exit, a point at which one would hope that MPs were beginning to talk about concrete ways to stop no deal and were willing to sacrifice political capital to do so. The one point of Brexit consensus at Westminster, however, remains that no deal would be a disaster but that someone else, whether it be another party or another faction within that party, will be the one to take political damage to prevent a no-deal Brexit.

That consensus is one reason why no deal remains a real and live possibility.

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