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Ten Thoughts on Theresa May’s Brexit-Deal Defeat

British Prime Minister Theresa May arrives at the European Union summit in Brussels, Belgium, June 22. (Gonzalo Fuentes/Reuters)

1. Theresa May’s defeat by the unexpectedly large margin of 230 votes last night was indeed “historic,” as every bore in journalism and punditry wrote — but only because of its size: It was the largest defeat for a government on a major issue in parliamentary history. Some of the earlier defeats turned out to be historic in a more substantial sense — Neville Chamberlain’s loss of Tory support in the 1940 Norway debate, leading to the appointment of Winston Churchill as prime minister, is the best example (though Chamberlain was not actually defeated but won the vote). Other such votes were less important because they didn’t lead to much, such as the vote of no confidence in the 1924 Labour government, which led to Stanley Baldwin’s lackluster “Safety First” Tory government, which in turn lost the following election — which, come to think of it, may not be a bad forecast of the unexciting May regime.

2. Don’t trust any of the predictions that as a result of this vote, some particular next-step “option” is now off the agenda because it lacks parliamentary support. That’s because no single option for Brexit or Remain currently enjoys a parliamentary majority. All, however, have some prospect of succeeding in eventually amassing such a majority. That even includes a No Deal Brexit, since that’s what will happen unless a majority of MPs gradually gather around another option. Most media people either don’t know that or don’t want you to know that because they disapprove of No Deal and of the kind of voters who support it.

3. It’s always interesting to compare the expected effects of a surprise upset with the actual effects. For most of the last year, press commentary treated the Tory Brexiteers as the main opposition to the soft-as-putty Brexit that became May’s Withdrawal Agreement. Yet when its defeat was announced, the large pro-Remain crowd outside Parliament cheered lustily. It was important to them that the Brexiteers should not enjoy a victory. So they claimed it as their own in the hope of ensuring that they do actually benefit. Similarly, pre-vote there had been dire media predictions that a defeat for May would mean a fall in the pound. It was the predictions that collapsed, however, when May’s defeat led to a rise in the pound. It was swiftly explained by the financial pundits that it was the very size of May’s defeat that caused the pound to rise rather than fall, because it might mean we would now get an even softer Brexit than before. Hmmnnn. I’m not sure that would convince me if I’d lost money following their first advice.

4. Another factor at play here is the confusion that May herself causes by constantly reiterating her absolute determination to achieve Brexit and fulfill the instruction given by the voters in the referendum. That doesn’t deceive the Westminster village, but it has persuaded others that she is a symbol of Brexit at any price. In reality, she is a symbol of subordinating Brexit to the wishes of a Remain establishment and cabinet without seeming to do so. She is thus a cause of confusion and an obstacle to any fruitful change of government and/or Tory policy in response to last night’s defeat. Her rhetoric will probably remain strong, but she will likely be as weak towards the Labour and Tory Remain Ultras like Dominic Grieve as she has been towards the EU negotiators and the establishment. Unless she undergoes a Damascene conversion, she will now open negotiations with Opposition parties and her own Remainer rebels on the next Plan B while ramping up her Brexit language to keep Brexiteers happy and Boris at bay. This kicking the can down the road works until you run out of road, which in this case will be the 29th of March — and that means on present form that she will try to get the EU to agree to a postponement of Brexit. That would keep open a Pandora’s Box of competing alternatives to Brexit that the fixed date was intend to close firmly.

5. Tory MPs should therefore tell the Whips that their support can’t be relied on in tomorrow’s vote of no confidence and, in effect, force her resignation. That looks very unlikely at present — though a Daily Telegraph editorial urges her to go voluntarily in a quiet way — but it’s absolutely vital. If she goes, the options for the government get more and better under a new leader — if only because May and her cabal would no longer control the levers of power, the party machine, and the writing of the next Tory manifesto (which may be needed sooner than we now think).  If she stays, the government will gradually lose control of the Brexit agenda to Labour and the Tories’ own Remain Ultras. Nothing good can be done while she’s PM.

6. That’s not such a scary or dramatic action. Under the rules of the Fixed Term Parliaments Act, a defeat on a vote of no confidence no longer necessarily requires an election. Its first effect is a two-week hiatus while everyone wonders what to do next. Owing to the folly of not ditching her in December, the time is not ideal for a Tory leadership election. But in addition to being vital to avoid a slow catastrophe, a leadership election would also allow the debate about Brexit’s next stage to be held inside the Tory party rather than thrown into the chaos of a debate controlled not by the experienced party managers on both sides but by a speaker, John Bercow, who has made little secret of his intention to tilt the parliamentary rules in favor of Remain.

7. As I wrote above the media, the establishment, and an unstable Remain majority of MPs want to avoid a No Deal Brexit — or in ordinary English, Brexit — at almost all costs. Their difficulties are that all the other options have major and perhaps even disabling flaws. For instance, an actual reversal of Brexit would require the passage of legislation to reverse the legislation that was passed by an immemse majority a year ago. That’s embarrassing, of course, and also open to effective obstruction and delay by those MPs who still support Brexit. That would almost certainly take it past the 29th of March, making it somewhat pointless. Also, it’s perhaps true that MPs might change the law if they could do so without being seen and held to account. But what if they had to go on record repealing Brexit openly? That might be a different matter, especially when (as now) an election might occur at any time. Similarly, it’s occurred to proponents of a Second Referendum that it might actually produce a second majority for Brexit. Oh, calamity. So they are playing with some all-too-original ideas. Stephen Kinnock, son of the former Labour leader and now a rising moderate star, came up with one: hold a referendum that did not offer the voters a choice between Remain and No Deal Brexit because he thinks a No Deal Brexit would be too bad for the U.K. economy. That looks too much like arrogance on stilts to be really popular even with MPs.   

8. All these parliamentary maneuvers by Remainers, moreover, are being proposed and discussed under the shadow of the fact that public support for Brexit refuses to change more than marginally despite an astonishing barrage of Remain propaganda of the most exaggerated and silliest kind. (Its silliness may help explain why the voters have not been more influenced by it; it’s treating them as fools in the most patronizing way.) As a result MPs are uneasily aware that they may get an unwelcome reaction if they go too far in reversing their earlier professions of support for the referendum result. A re-reversal — or what Churchill once called a re-rat — is more likely than you may think. If Leavers tell their MPs (in no uncertain terms) that they’ll organize, finance, and vote against them, we may all be surprised to see how quickly they get the religion of democracy.

9. Nor are the latest polls very encouraging for the Opposition in partisan terms. A new poll of who would be the best prime minister has Corbyn down to 20 percent and May at 38 percent. Only 46 percent of 2017 Labour voters picked Corbyn. More Remain voters pick May over Corbyn — not unfairly because he has kept Labour from taking a more pro-Remain position. And the most interesting (and reassuring) result of all: The lead that Corbyn enjoyed with 18–24s is down to only 4 percent. We should now start looking at how Corbyn would compare against Boris, David Davis, and Dominic Raab (the leading Brexiteers), since their cabinet rivals who backed the May Deal very obviously misread the signs.

10. And that brings me to my final point: I cannot resist the temptation to say: “I told you so.” If you go back to my Brexit analyses of this time last year, you will find that my firmest argument was that Theresa May was being maneuvered, maybe with her own connivance, by a cabal of Downing Street aides and Remain-minded cabinet ministers into adopting a Brexit policy that would take her into a conflict with the majority of her own party that would not end well. The latest fruit of that policy fell on her head last night like 230 over-ripe tomatoes.

And it hasn’t ended yet either.

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