Theresa May is stuck in a no man’s land, with a no deal Brexit looking increasingly likely

There are two possible Brexit destinations, and the Prime Minister has no parliamentary majority to get closer to either.

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

Theresa May survives – just about. Although the government was defeated on the matter of the European Medicines Agency, it avoided defeat on the more substantial issue of the customs union, thanks to the votes of four (or five, depending on how you count the currently suspended MP for Luton North, Kelvin Hopkins) of the Labour Leavers. (I explain the differing motivations of parliament’s most under-covered tribe here.)

While the size of the Tory rebellion was pretty substantial considering the stakes, the vote is a reminder of the dynamic that matters as far as the British parliament and Brexit is concerned: there is a majority to frustrate the government, but not to soften Brexit.

But the problem is that there may not be a majority for anything. It’s worth pausing to note the things that parliament has ruled out: the government is now forbidden to create a border requiring infrastructure on the island of Ireland, forbidden to create further barriers in the Irish Sea between Northern Ireland and the United Kingdom, bound to seek membership of the European Medicines Agency, and bound to exit the European Union's VAT regime.

Those commitments can barely be reconciled with one another, let alone the government's own red lines (such as they are), which are not yet on the statute book but could yet find their way onto it.

As I said at the start of the week, the detail of May’s Chequers plan doesn't matter all that much. As it stands it is unworkable, and what matters is that it signalled that in the choice between whether after Brexit the United Kingdom opts for a low market access, high regulatory freedom relationship like Canada’s or a high market access, low regulatory freedom relationship like Norway's, she had chosen the latter: high access, low freedom.

But now it looks clear that, barring a major rupture in both of the major parties, there isn't a majority in the House of Commons for the further concessions that May would have to make to get a Brexit deal. Instead she looks likely to stay stuck in a no man's land between the only two possible Brexit destinations and with no parliamentary majority to get closer to either. Leaving the European Union without any form of deal looks increasingly likely.

Stephen Bush is political editor of the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

Free trial CSS