- UK Prime Minister Theresa May on Tuesday won a majority for renegotiating her Brexit deal and defeated several attempts by MPs to take control of the Brexit process.
- The votes were immediately dismissed by the European Union.
- However, there are signs that Parliament could ultimately come around to May’s deal.
- The United Kingdom is due to leave the EU on March 29.
LONDON – Earlier this month, UK Prime Minister Theresa May suffered the largest government defeat in the history of the House of Commons when members of Parliament voted to reject her Brexit deal.
In the immediate aftermath of that vote, May’s deal looked as good as dead, with many suggesting the entire Brexit project could soon end up on the scrap heap.
However, following Tuesday’s votes on a series of Brexit amendments – in which the prime minister defeated multiple attempts by MPs to seize control of the Brexit process before winning a majority for a renegotiated deal – it is for the first time possible to see a route through this mess.
Here’s how things could play out.
May wins further reassurance from Brussels
May’s demand to reopen the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement earned short shrift from European Union leaders, with senior figures immediately dismissing any renegotiation.
As The Telegraph’s Peter Foster wrote on Tuesday, the prevailing view in the EU is that leaders need only sit on their hands and May will eventually fold and opt for a soft Brexit which could win the support of the opposition Labour Party.
The EU’s bet may ultimately prove right, and it is certainly the case that a deal leaving the UK in a closer relationship with Brussels than the bulk of May’s party desires has the greatest chance of winning a majority in Parliament.
However, there is so far no sign that this is a bet the prime minister is willing to take. And if there is one thing we have learned from the past two years, it is that May’s first, second, and third priorities are managing the concerns of her party rather than reaching out to listen to the concerns of the opposition.
May will therefore continue to press for concessions from the EU – and despite its public refusals, the EU will want to do something to help May, even if that doesn’t mean reopening the withdrawal treaty itself. For that reason, we can expect some sort of addendum or codicil to the treaty to make it clear that the controversial Northern Ireland backstop will be temporary and further set out how it would end.
Conservative Brexiteers start to come back
That won’t be enough to convince the hardest of Brexiteers in May’s party, and there will always be a rump of Tory MPs who believe fundamentally that the UK should leave the EU without a deal and will do anything they can to achieve that.
But for many others, the prospect of a no-deal Brexit – combined with the risk of Parliament stepping in to delay or even cancel Brexit altogether – will be enough to bring them back on board.
On Tuesday, most Conservative MPs voted to back May’s deal if she secures changes to the backstop from the EU. While those changes, if they come at all, will not be anything like what they are demanding, many Conservative MPs are likely to judge that they are as good as they can get.
However, this alone won’t be enough to win a majority for May’s deal, particularly if the Democratic Unionist Party, which props up May’s minority government, remains opposed to it. This is where Labour comes in.
Labour MPs save May
On Tuesday, the Labour Party leader, Jeremy Corbyn, ordered his party to back an amendment by Labour MP Yvette Cooper seeking to give Parliament the power to delay Brexit. But it was defeated by a surprisingly wide margin when 14 Labour MPs voted against it and a further 11 Labour MPs, including junior members of his front-bench team, abstained.
Many more, like Labour MP Lisa Nandy, reluctantly backed the amendment under the provision that any delay to Brexit would last only three months. Among these MPs – mostly representing seats where a majority of voters approved of leaving the EU in the 2016 referendum – there is zero appetite to delay, let alone stop, Brexit. And as the victory of an amendment calling on May to avoid a no-deal Brexit shows, there is even less appetite for leaving without a deal.
It’s possible to see how, faced with a last-minute choice between backing May’s deal (or a mildly revised version of it) or crashing out of the EU on March 29, enough Labour MPs could ultimately opt to save the day for the prime minister.
An unholy alliance
The results of Tuesday’s votes on Brexit amendments demonstrated three things:
- There is no majority for a no-deal Brexit.
- There is no appetite to delay or scrap Brexit to prevent that no-deal Brexit.
- Therefore, the only remaining option is to back May’s deal.
If you combine the majority against no-deal, the majority against delaying Brexit, and the majority for a revised deal, you get to some sort of majority for some sort of deal.
Right now, the route to that majority looks incredibly difficult for the prime minister. But for the first time since her defeat earlier this month, it is possible to see how she gets there.
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