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Why May’s deal could emerge as the surprise winner after all

To avoid a no deal Brexit, Parliament will be left with two choices: a general election, or a fallback option that MPs are least opposed to.

By Stephen Bush

Will Theresa May’s deal with the European Union be defeated in the House of Commons again next week, if so how by how many votes, and will it matter? To take those questions in order: yes, your guess is as good as mine, and it’s far too early to tell.

Yes, May’s deal will be defeated. To lose any vote, all May needs to do is lose four more votes off her Conservative-DUP pile than she gains from the various opposition parties. She is not going to gain any votes from the SNP, TIG, Plaid Cymru or Caroline Lucas, the sole Green MP. She is not going to secure anything like the level of concession on the EU side necessary to reduce the government rebellion to within the area it would need to be for the 30 Labour MPs who are keen to vote for a deal sooner rather than later to matter.

Don’t forget, too, that for Labour MPs to be willing to put their necks on the line they have to think it would matter. As one of their number put it to me yesterday: it’s one thing to sacrifice your career to prevent a no deal Brexit. It’s quite another to sacrifice your career to make May suffer a parliamentary loss in the high double digits rather than triple figures. 

How much by? Just as there are Labour MPs who want to vote for a deal, there are Conservative MPs who are looking for an excuse to back this accord. Certainly some are privately of the view that the risk of Article 50 being extended means they must act now – but whether they do depends on the mood in their local parties, and as with their Labour equivalents, whether they think there’s any point in doing so.

Steve Swinford reports in the Telegraph that the Cabinet is resigned to losing by 100 votes. It’s important to remember that Conservative and DUP MPs count twice – one vote off the government pile and one vote on the opposition pile. The ten DUP MPs are bound to vote against as it stands and that means so will the vast majority of backbench Brexiteers as well. 100 might well be a good result unless something drastically shifts.

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Will it matter? The important thing to remember is that as it stands there is no parliamentary majority for any resolution to the Brexit crisis, other than the legal default of a no deal exit. There demonstrably isn’t a majority for May’s deal as evidenced by its historic defeat. The deal that Corbyn is seeking to negotiate with the support of backbenchers from across the House, ranging from the Conservatives Nick Boles and Oliver Letwin to Labour’s Lucy Powell and Stephen Kinnock is closer to a majority but will struggle to pass at the moment because of the opposition of some Labour supporters of a second referendum.

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There is no majority for a second referendum because while that group of 30 Labour MPs who are dead set against doing anything that can be said to be frustrating Brexit isn’t big enough to pass May’s deal, it is big enough to hole any hope of another referendum below the waterline.

MPs are keen to say that there is no majority for no deal but the important thing is that by voting to trigger Article 50 in the manner the House did, no deal is the default unless a majority is found. 

So where does Parliament go from here? One route is another election, which returns a House that is able to pick one of the possible ways out – which would require a) an extension and b) a decisive election result. 

The other route – which is why we simply don’t know if May’s deal will be dead and buried even if it is voted down by a heavy margin – is essentially for whichever one of the ways out that MPs are least opposed to emerge as the fallback option. At the moment it looks most likely that a softer Brexit such as the one envisaged by Corbyn, Boles, Powell et al is the most likely way out. But it could be that May’s deal emerges as the surprise winner after all.