Tonight the government whipped its MPs to vote against a motion it tabled, and lost the vote anyway, indicating that the government is so weak that it cannot even defeat itself.
It was all deeply confusing, even for those involved. Following Theresa May’s defeat over her Withdrawal Agreement last night, MPs this evening were asked to vote on a government motion which sought to remove the possibility for the UK to leave the EU on 29th March without a deal. However, an amendment – seeking to reject the possibility of Britain leaving the EU without a deal at any point – initially tabled by Conservative MP Dame Spelman passed by a narrow margin, complicating matters.
Spelman attempted to withdraw her amendment this afternoon, but Speaker John Bercow refused. He said another one of the amendment’s signatories could move the amendment anyway. The amendment, eventually moved by Labour MP Yvette Cooper, won by a narrow margin of 312-308 votes. It is just a political expression of the will of the Commons, and has no legal force. But it was a shocking blow to Theresa May anyway.
So, the amended government motion due to be voted on by MPs now sought to rule out a no deal Brexit in its entirety, rather than just by a set date (as the original government motion sought to do). In light of this the government moved quickly to whip its MPs against their now amended motion. For clarity’s sake: The government tabled a motion, lost a vote on an amendment to that motion, so then asked its MPs to vote against the motion they originally tabled. The government then lost that, and the amended motion passed 321 votes to 278.
Four cabinet ministers ignored the three-line whip and abstained on the vote – Amber Rudd, David Gauke, David Mundell and Greg Clark. Precedent dictates that ministers vote with their government, naturally. Number 10 says they won’t face the sack.
Theresa May got to her feet following the second defeat of the evening. She acknowledged that the house has provided a clear majority against leaving without a deal, however she repeated the point she has made time and time again: It is not enough to rule out no deal, MPs have to vote for a deal. As it stands, leaving the EU on 29th March without a deal remains the legal default.
It has been a long day for parliament. Theresa May has lost her voice, leaving Environment Secretary Michael Gove to do much of the leg work in the no deal Brexit debate preceding the vote. Convenient, that.
But the stroke of misfortune for the justifiably beleaguered Prime Minister may actually have worked in her favour this morning at PMQs. She warned she would keep her answers brief in light of having lost her voice. And May’s new found brevity helped her case. However, there was a dramatic irony to her most successful quip. When Corbyn asked what way May would vote tonight on the motion to take no deal off the table, she responded with the one liner: “I’ll be voting for the motion standing in my name.” Cue cheers from her benches and a slightly humiliated Corbyn. As matters turned out, she ended up later voting against the motion standing in her name.
Corbyn then resorted to his clichéd line of attack – May’s deal is dead, Labour want a customs union, Labour want a general election. His only moment of saving grace was when he expressed sympathy for May’s lost voice. Altogether, it wasn’t a great look for the leader of the opposition party to be unable to hold a government literally in the midst of collapse to account.
PMQs today then just went to show that May really needn’t do much to show Corbyn’s inadequacy as a parliamentarian and leader of the Labour party. He does most of the heavy lifting himself.
However, we’d be getting ahead of ourselves to think that Theresa May is doing much better. She lost a vote against herself this evening. She suffered a crushing defeat over her Withdrawal Agreement, again, last night. Her deal really isn’t up for renegotiation and it’ll need a miracle to pass as is.
Her party seems entirely at the mercy of the die-hard Brexiteer European Research Group and the perennially troublesome DUP. And amid all of this the Chancellor in his Spring Statement (which has understandably been overshadowed) commented that after “last nights events” the UK is “not where we hoped we would be.” Bit of an understatement, that.
The situation for May now looks even worse, after this evening’s events. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that it is down in large part to the ERG. It is quite remarkable that the group, some of whom have spent their entire political careers rallying to leave the European Union, have decided that when faced with that reality to vote against it. It defies belief that the likes of Peter Bone would be presented directly with what he’s always wanted to turn around and say, nah, no thanks.
So it is not hard to understand the sheer exasperation etched on May’s face in the chamber today when she reiterated that this deal, imperfect as it is, does actually deliver on what the ERG and their merry band want. But she might as well just scream that into the void; it’d be as effective, with the bonus of being a little stress reliever. Someone find May a void, she deserves it.
Which leaves us at a bit of an impasse. What is May to do next? MPs have ruled out no deal this evening. As the exasperated Prime Minister pointed out again, this does next-to-nothing to actually rule out the possibility of a no deal Brexit. It still remains the legal default in the absence of a deal. And a large, cavernous, un-missable absence there is.
MPs will then tomorrow vote on extending Article 50 to July 30th. But whether the EU will even offer such an extension is very much up in the air right now. She will try next week for meaningful vote 3.0. But it’s unclear whether that will fly with the hard Brexiteers who want out now, without May’s deal, no matter the consequences.