In the latest thrilling parliamentary episode of Brexit, the hopes and expectations of, among other Remainers, House of Commons speaker John Bercow were largely disappointed, and the hopes of Brexiteers began to rise again. That was not supposed to happen.
Before the actual votes on seven amendments to a government motion supporting Theresa May’s Withdrawal Agreement with the European Union, it was generally expected that some would pass and either delay the date of Brexit, or transfer control of parliamentary business from cabinet ministers to a coalition of Remainers, or allow MPs to choose among several alternative versions of Brexit. All of these were departures from usual parliamentary conventions — which Bercow had approved, contrary to both precedent and his duty of impartiality — and almost all represented a reversal of what a vast majority of MPs had voted for a year ago. Most significantly, however, they would all have had the intended effect of delaying Brexit indefinitely and likely canceling it altogether.
That was expected because it has become conventional wisdom that a House of Commons with a Remainer majority would inevitably vote only for a Brexit tolerable to the Remainers and thus disappointing to Leavers. It very much didn’t turn out that way. Of the seven amendments, the five most hostile ones were defeated, all by healthy majorities. The two amendments that did pass were (1) the Brady amendment, which the government had accepted as a way of keeping May’s plan alive, and (2) a non-binding amendment calling for the government not to pursue a No Deal Brexit but not providing any means to prevent it.
The latter is an example of a rule I’ve just discovered: “Votes that matter matter more than votes that don’t matter.” It’s been very easy for Remainer MPs to posture as principled opponents of Brexit when only other MPs were paying attention and Remainer cabinet ministers were quietly cheering them on. Remain seemed to be gaining ground, and its parliamentary advocates were almost blasé about reversing the referendum result. But the high-octane Brexit debate in the media and the campaign by Remainers to erect clever parliamentary obstacles to its realization meant that more and more voters were paying attention. One effect has been that public support for a No Deal Brexit — in which the U.K. would trade with the EU on World Trade Organization terms, rather than through a separate trade deal — has been rising since Christmas. In two successive BBC Question Time programs, the audience cheered when a lonely Leaver on the five-person panel demanded a simple No Deal departure. And both ministers and whips began to fear that a defeat would weaken the government on more than Brexit.
Under this combined public and party pressure, the rebels shrank in numbers and the government survived.
The practical effect of the Brady amendment was a modest one: to unite the Tories around a policy of sending May back to Brussels to ask for a time limit on the so-called Northern Ireland backstop (which would keep the U.K. in the EU customs union in order to avoid a hard border in Ireland). She herself is time-limited; she has two weeks to get this concession. Already the grand EU panjandrums have issued statements saying it’s out of the question. Very likely they are determined to hold that line. If so, May will come back either empty-handed or with some agreeable form of words — “ideally we would like the backstop to be temporary” — that she would try to sell to her party.
The choice would then be No Deal Brexit, or May’s deal, or No Brexit. Last night’s votes suggest that No Brexit is being taken off the table by MPs nervous of the voters. That’s why it was Leavers who were smiling as they left the Commons Chamber. May’s deal without an EU concession would probably suffer a second defeat, albeit by a smaller majority than the 230 votes last time. Does that then mean that a WTO Brexit is where we’ll end up? Possibly. We’re now going in that direction.
A No Deal Brexit would be a moment in time, however, not a permanent national strategy. As the former Brexit secretary of state David Davis has argued consistently, the approach of Brexit day would force both Britain and the EU to negotiate lots and lots of little deals to smooth Britain’s departure. Such little deals are actually being reached and implemented at the moment. The WTO exists to promote and regulate them. Once Brexit has actually happened, moreover, a new situation would arrive. New negotiations could start on a free-trade deal, similar to the EU’s deals with Canada and other countries, without the heightened emotional context of the EU–U.K. divorce.
If May were to return from Brussels with some such modest and practical agreement rather than the Rube Goldberg Rubik’s Cube monstrosity she has been selling ineffectively for the last eight months, she would rescue something from the wreckage. But that is probably too much to ask.