Image: David Hawgood
Despite Brexit throwing UK politics into a period of first occasions, you really don’t usually get the scenes that we’ve been seeing in Parliament over the last two days. Cabinet rebels not being forced to resign, massive defeats and a Prime Minister surviving them, government whipping its MPs to vote against their own motion. These really are unprecedented times – feeling confused? This article will help you understand the extraordinary events of the last few days.
May’s meaningful vote 2.0 was defeated with a 149-majority last night in the House of Commons, MPs voted it down by 391 to 242. That’s down from the historic 230 strong defeat May suffered, when she first brought the withdrawal deal to Parliament, however it is still a large defeat for any government. Theresa May had hoped that that the clarifications and reassurances she got in Strasbourg, three nights ago, on the 11th might have been enough to at least get the defeat below the three-figure mark. She suffered yet another defeat last night when MPs voted to rule out no deal.
The events of last night are extraordinary! The government had tabled a vote to rule out no deal on the 29th of March, if MPs did not vote for her deal by then. The extent of disagreement in the cabinet was clear as such an important vote was allowed to be a free vote. What then happened caught everyone off-guard, including the Prime Minister and party whips. An amendment to the motion, seeking to change the vote so that it blocked no deal, not only on the 29th of March, but in any circumstance shocked everyone by scraping through with 312 votes to 308. The motion the government had introduced was now on blocking no deal permanently, the government, wanting to keep no-deal as an option then had to whip its own MPs, to vote against the motion it introduced. It was claimed that May had lost control of her party after thirteen government ministers ignored a three-line whip, (which is a party telling its MPs they must vote a certain way) and abstained. Four of those were cabinet ministers who unusually were not fired for ignoring the party whip. This was however a non-binding vote.
Speaking to Emily Thornberry, Labour’s Shadow Foreign Secretary the night before that vote immediately after the meaningful vote 2.0 was defeated last night, she told me this deal was “exactly the same” as the withdrawal deal MPs voted on three months ago. She went on to add “we could have had this in front of us in November. What really makes me angry is we’ve wasted all this time, she keeps coming back with the same thing in a different font, and we reject it… it’s ridiculous.”
In fact, when I spoke to MPs from almost all the political parties, the one thing they did agree on was that they disagreed with May’s handling of Brexit and attitude towards Parliament. Caroline Lucas from the Greens said that “the Prime Minister very rarely gives a clear answer.” Ian Blackford, the London Parliamentary leader for the SNP said, “she’s never sought to try and reach a consensus across the House of Commons… most normal people would’ve accepted that they’ve failed and would have gone.” And Mike Gapes from the new Independent Group said, “despite all her efforts it’s quite clear that Parliament will not accept her withdrawal agreement.”
The two defeats and pressure on May to try and extend Article 50 has not deterred her however. In fact, she’s hoping to use the possibility of a long delay to Brexit, as a way to bounce more Brexiteer MPs into accepting her current withdrawal deal – such as former Brexit Minister David Davis, who now supports it. May is now trying to stoke fears that if there’s a long delay and the UK has to participate in EU parliamentary elections that the UK will not leave at all.
Tonight, MPs will likely vote to tell the Prime Minister to try and extend Article 50, the Prime Minister then must decide what to ask for. Although there is no guarantee that the EU will give her an extension, or give her one with the time limit she wants. What is clear is that we will be seeing meaningful vote 3.0 make its way to the Commons some time before next Wednesday. If it passes May will likely ask for a short technical extension, if it doesn’t she’ll be asking for a much longer one. The question now is are Brexiteer MPs willing to take that risk?