What we learned from Wednesday night’s Brexit votes

The main lesson is a familiar one: parliament does not want a no-deal Brexit, but is too squeamish to take the steps to rule it out. 

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Parliament is still too squeamish to stop a no-deal Brexit

Though both Theresa May’s belated concession on offering MPs a vote on an Article 50 extension if no deal is approved by March 12 and Yvette Cooper’s amendment that sought parliamentary approval for the same commitments have both been spun as taking no-deal off the table, in reality they do no such thing. Instead, they merely extend the table. 

Cooper’s amendment was accepted by the government and passed 502 votes to 20. That much was to be expected. More telling — and surprising — was that MPs rejected the SNP’s amendment ruling out a no-deal Brexit not just on March 29, but ever, by 324 votes to 288. Its defeat came despite backing from the Labour leadership. More significantly, it essentially asked a question that MPs have answered in the affirmative before: are you comfortable with a purely symbolic rejection of leaving the EU without a deal? 

Tonight the answer was no. That suggests that when MPs reach the cliff-edge in June, parliament’s inclination will be towards a deal rather than any outcome that thwarts or otherwise calls into question the result of the 2016 referendum. 

Tory MPs aren’t ready to back Labour’s Brexit plan, so the Commons isn’t either...

Only one Conservative MP — Ken Clarke — voted for Jeremy Corbyn’s amendment, which sought to enshrine Labour’s plan for a Norway-style Brexit in domestic law (the Independent Group’s 11 MPs abstained). That it lost by a clear majority of 83 suggests that any attempt by the opposition to take advantage of the latent parliamentary majority for a softer Brexit than Theresa May’s is doomed to fail as long as Corbyn is the one fronting it. 

...but opponents of a second referendum aren’t giving up the fight

Richard Burgon, the shadow justice secretary and one of the most committed internal opponents of a second referendum, reacted to the defeat of Labour’s amendment by insisting that the inevitable extension to Article 50 would give the party a chance to build a Commons majority for its alternative plan. His words were later echoed by Jeremy Corbyn. “We will back a public vote,” he said. “We will also continue to push for the other available options to prevent those outcomes, including a close economic relationship based on our credible alternative plan or a general election.” Labour’s backing of a second referendum will prove less unequivocal and unanimous than the pro-EU MPs on its benches would like. 

The Independent Group are keeping a safe distance

TIG’s amendment calling for a second referendum was not selected by the Speaker — and despite its demands for a close single market relationship and permanent customs union largely aligning with the Brexit demands of the three Conservative MPs who defected to TIG last week, all 11 of the group’s MPs abstained on Labour’s amendment. Given the group’s political appeal — and raison d’etre — to a large extend lies in outflanking Labour on Brexit, the reason for their doing so in spite of their previous positions as MPs is obvious.

Reports that Tory Brexiteers are climbing down have been greatly exaggerated 

Twenty hardline Tory Brexiteers defied a three-line whip and voted against Yvette Cooper’s (and thus the government’s) plan to offer MPs the chance to delay Brexit day — among them former Cabinet minister Esther McVey. This number is a useful indication of the floor Theresa May will hit in a best case scenario if she manages to wring a concession from the EU on the Irish backstop that convinces most of her MPs who voted against the withdrawal agreement at the first time of asking. These MPs voted for a no-deal. 

Some 88 of their Conservative colleagues, meanwhile, followed an ERG whip to abstain. The total of 108 is only 10 short of the 118 that voted against the withdrawal agreement last month. If Theresa May is to pass a Brexit deal that keeps her party largely intact — as is clearly her preference — she not only needs a meaningful concession from Brussels, but dozens of Labour votes. That job is still looking very difficult.

Patrick Maguire is the New Statesman's political correspondent.