One MP texted me these words on their way to vote against the withdrawal agreement on Tuesday evening: “Someone in this queue is an idiot.” The defeat of Theresa May’s accord is probably the sharpest rebuke delivered by the legislature to the executive since the Long Parliament voted to try Charles I for treason. The vote managed to unite Sarah Wollaston, a Conservative MP who wants to stop Brexit, with Kate Hoey, a Labour MP who thinks that it doesn’t go far enough. It brought together Nigel Dodds, the DUP’s deputy leader, who believes his vote helped cement Northern Ireland’s place in the Union, with Ian Blackford, his opposite number in the SNP, who thinks that his vote will help remove Scotland from it. Jeremy Corbyn, who hopes that the Brexit crisis will lead to a general election, shared a division lobby with the Tory rebel Anna Soubry, whose preference is to avoid one. It was cheered by devout Brexiteers protesting outside College Green – the scrap of grass where the broadcasters erect gazebos to discuss goings-on in parliament – and it was applauded by committed Remainers outside Parliament Square.
They can’t all be right. Someone in this queue is an idiot. But who?
Most in Westminster think they know the answer: the committed Leavers who rejected May’s deal because it keeps the United Kingdom too closely bound to the European Union. The only way that May can possibly find the 117 votes that she needs to overturn her record-breaking defeat is to soften Brexit, at a minimum by keeping the UK in the customs union and quite probably by staying in the single market as well.
Pro-Leave MPs who dislike the deal on offer will discover that they have instead secured a Brexit that keeps us closer to the EU than anything May would have negotiated given free rein. Rupert Harrison, George Osborne’s former chief of staff, compared revolting MPs to the parable about the man who perished in a flood after declining a car, a boat and a helicopter in the belief that divine intervention would save him.
Some pro-Brexit Conservatives fear that Harrison is right. One of their number, Caroline Johnson, MP for Sleaford and North Hykeham, warned her fellow Leavers that while they won a majority in the referendum of 2016, they do not command a majority in parliament: the political battle is a football match that is “ten versus 11” and that in rejecting the deal they risked losing the greater prize of Brexit. That’s broadly the calculation that keeps the Leavers still in the cabinet in their positions: that May’s deal, flawed as it is, is the best available way forward and that anything else risks ending up with no Brexit.
Of course, the majority of pro-Leave MPs, whether in the Conservative Party or in the small rump of committed Eurosceptics in the Labour Party, don’t share the diagnosis. While they know they don’t command a parliamentary majority – an amendment brought by John Baron, a committed Brexiteer, voted down just before the withdrawal agreement, attracted the support of just 24 MPs – they also know that because parliament triggered Article 50 in March 2017, the UK will leave without a deal on 29 March 2019 unless MPs agree to something in its place.
It’s true that a majority of MPs do not want a no deal exit: 303 voted for Yvette Cooper’s toothless amendment on 8 January 2019 – a symbolic show of parliament’s mood that, while not enough to stop a non-negotiated exit, at least indicated the very minimum level of opposition in the Commons to no deal.
But it also revealed its limitations: while the 303 can agree that they don’t want no deal, they are divided into supporters of May’s agreement, advocates of another referendum and those calling for the deal to be rewritten from top to bottom.
MPs are, in the main, ambitious, driven and, by instinct, “sole traders”, as one of their number put it to me. They are incentivised to compete with one another even when they share a party. The No Dealers’ big bet is that while there is a nascent majority to prevent no deal, there are less than 70 days until we leave the EU by matter of law and that is not very much time at all for more than 303 ambitious and driven sole traders to reach a consensus on what to support instead.
It’s not a perfect plan but nor is anyone else’s. The route to a second referendum runs through an even rockier path. As it stands, the number of MPs willing to back another plebiscite is less than a third of the Commons, which is one reason why the People’s Vote campaign declined to put down an amendment calling for a rerun. It must find at least an extra 100 votes from somewhere in the Commons and then secure the support of Corbyn, a committed Eurosceptic who fears that support for a second referendum would cost him the Labour left’s best shot at political power, and the acquiescence of the Conservative government, whose major players are preparing to bid for the soon-to-be-vacant party leadership.
As for advocates of a Brexit that keeps the UK in the single market or the customs union, they at least might be able to secure a parliamentary majority, but they would also need May to abandon her commitment to reducing immigration and her belief that the referendum result was above all about ending the free movement of people from the European Union. Corbyn himself needs not just to precipitate an election but to win it decisively enough that the Brexit deadlock goes away, which is also a tall order.
The reality, then, is that no one who was in that queue can say for certain that they aren’t the idiot. No one in parliament has a foolproof plan and nobody knows whose gamble will pay off.
This article appears in the 16 Jan 2019 issue of the New Statesman, How Brexit trapped Britain