Even by the standards of the maelstrom that is Brexit, this last week has been extraordinary. We’ve seen political precedents tumble, received wisdom shatter and old rules mutate. In this, the most turbulent of times, here are some of the oddities we’ve seen, hypocrisies that have surprised and things we’ve learnt along the way.
1.) We won’t be leaving the EU on 29 March
This is the biggest news of the week. The PM promised us a 100 times that we would be leaving the EU on 29 March 2019. But with this week’s developments, in the absence of a deal, it is clear that there will be a majority in parliament to prevent that. The new end date is 30 June but if the deal doesn’t pass we are likely to be in the EU for much longer.
2.) Theresa May never resigns
Theresa May is rewriting the rules on prime ministerial accountability. Before her premiership no one would have thought a prime minister could lose two votes, by enormous margins, on the most central issue of the day and survive. She is, however, still in place, albeit completely enfeebled. In the process, she has doubtlessly altered our unwritten constitution and rules on these things – why would a PM ever resign when a vote is lost ever again?
3.) The Labour Party is not terribly interested in a second referendum
Jeremy Corbyn had the chance to vote for a second referendum this week and passed it up, despite promising to pursue one only weeks before. The party says it’s about sequencing but it’s clear that they will do all they can to avoid it. As one source close to the Labour MPs in Leave seats told me this week: “We are saying the things Jeremy wishes he could.”
4.) Labour MPs aren’t voting for the deal
There has been endless speculation and expectation in Westminster that a score and a half of Labour MPs would rescue Theresa May in the end. There is no sign that is happening. Only one more Labour MP voted for her deal the second time around than the first (Caroline Flint and she is sui generis). Ultimately, it is proving too much of a wrench for Labour MPs to rescue a Conservative government and a Conservative prime minister, even if relations with their own leader are poor. The decline of tribalism in British politics is much overwritten and overstated, especially on the Labour side. Given that the £1.8bn “Towns Fund” bung to Labour MPs was a total waste of money. Turns out Caroline Flint is even more expensive than the DUP.
5.) Theresa May has made the job of winning round Labour MPs harder
Much is written about how much Labour MPs despise their own leader but far less about how they have come to despise the prime minister even more. They believe she treats parliament with contempt, a reputation she did much to burnish with her lecturing reaction to her second defeat. Many are also incredulous that she has done so little to reach out to them at any point, even at this late stage and angry that the only phalanx of parliament with which she seems to wish to do business, is her own pro-Brexit ultras. Even Labour MPs in the most heavily Leave seats have little wish to save her or her deal – as one said to me this week “she had her chance to reach out and she blew it”. As for Remainer Labour parliamentarians, they are even less minded to talk to the PM now they are guaranteed an Article 50 extension.
6.) The Speaker could block MV3
Little noticed at the time but followed up by Sky News, in a response to Angela Eagle in parliament, the Speaker suggested that the government might fall foul of an old parliamentary rule which says that an issue, once decided upon by the Commons, cannot be considered again in the same session. As a result of the modest changes achieved by the government, it could be said that MV2 was different to MV1 but that MV3 will be the same as MV2 (you still with me?). It would be a hugely provocative and explosive move but John Bercow has made them before.
7.) The prime minister never believed that “no deal was better than a bad deal”
One of the prime minister’s oldest and most consistent refrains turned out to be the bluff that most assumed. She has no intention of allowing us to walk away without a deal – and voted accordingly (unlike many of her cabinet ministers).
8.) The government’s negotiating position has been totally destroyed
They’ve accepted we are not leaving on 29 March. Parliament has ruled out no deal under any circumstances. There’s nothing left of what were once deep lines in the sand.
9.) The UK is a supplicant
Forget the ins and outs of Westminster politics, a huge change took place this week which exposed the true power dynamics between Britain and the EU for what they really are. We had to ask the EU for an extension which they said they had “noted”; the Irish PM, Leo Varadkar, said that he and his fellow leaders should be “generous.” But note, it is we, not they asking for something. They are not begging us for an extension, for fear of the damage of the loss of access to our markets and the ensuing chaos. It puts pay to the old idea, oft-heard during the referendum (but rarely now) that “they need us more than we need them”. If that were the case, wouldn’t it be the other way around? The UK has become a supplicant, entirely dependent on the decisions of the club we are leaving. It is one of the many ironies of the Brexit project that a move designed to restore sovereignty to parliament has left it entirely at the mercies of the body from which it is separating. In many ways, it is a humbling national moment.
10.) The next Tory leadership election is well under way
Any Remainer ministers who voted against the government’s own A50 Brexit motion (including, unbelievably, the Brexit Secretary himself who not only closed the debate but commended the motion to the house) are guaranteed to have ambitions to run. Those ambitions make passage of Theresa May’s deal yet harder – those on the backbenches have an incentive to hold out – and reap the gratitude from the Tory grassroots when the next leadership election comes.
11.) Collective cabinet responsibility has gone
Four cabinet ministers ignored a three line whip on Wednesday night and survived. Just another norm Brexit has shattered.
12.) The PM made a huge strategic mistake
The PM’s reaction to her first defeat was to promise the undeliverable – the transformation (if not the removal) of the Irish backstop. She whipped her MPs accordingly in the subsequent “Brady amendment”. Yet as she herself had said before MV1, “any and all withdrawal agreements will contain the backstop”. To buy herself time she promised something she knew she could not achieve. That thing, for the DUP and ERG MPs became the litmus test of success. When she (inevitably) did not deliver, they could not back down – even though many of them wanted to. The pattern of over-promising to buy time, has been something of a theme of her premiership and it has cost her dearly.
13.)The ERG are buckling slowly but not completely
There is a trickle of ERG MPs going over to the PM, it may become a stream but it won’t ever be a deluge. Thee will be Conservative MPs who vote against the deal, come what may. They see it as a position of honour and would rather go down fighting. Indeed (unbelievably) they do not believe that the PM’s withdrawal treaty actually takes us out of the EU. If that’s your starting point, there’s really not much which can be done to win them round.
14.) The Tory party has (weirdly) outsourced its decision-making to the DUP
I spoke to a Conservative MP this week who had voted against the deal twice who said both he and scores of his colleagues would transfer to the PM’s column if the DUP came onboard. This is a peculiar innovation of recent British politics; To outsource your decision-making faculties over the most important issue of the day to another party (one which historically has been far outside the mainstream and with few links to the Tories) is odd to say the least. Not least because, in fact, the Brexit aims of the DUP and ERG are not especially aligned. Though both are pro-Brexit, the imperative of the DUP is simply that a deal is passed which in no way damages the union; i.e. that Northern Ireland is treated identically to Great Britain. That could, theoretically be, a soft Brexit, something the ERG do not want. The backstop was created because the PM has negotiated for a hard one. But now the ERG have got into bed with the DUP, they cannot easily climb out.
15.) If the deal doesn’t pass we are almost certainly going to fight the European elections
The EU confirmed that if we are not by late May the UK must contest the European parliamentary elections. These will be the most interesting European elections in history (admittedly, not a high bar). It is likely that the battle will be joined by two new political forces, Nigel Farage’s freshly-minted Brexit party (whose membership, I’m told, has surged since the Article 50 vote) and the pro-Remain Independent Group. I suspect these elections will act as a makeshift substitute for a new referendum. If pro-Remain parties win they will claim public opinion has shifted; if pro-Leave parties triumph, they will say this is the beginning of a pro-Brexit populist revolt. The Conservatives and Labour may find themselves completely squeezed. Turnout will likely be high on both sides. Bear in mind too the wildcard of European Union citizens, who can (unlike general elections) vote. The results may be a totally unfamiliar political landscape.
16.) The PM won’t get her deal through
I’m putting my neck out here and going against the received Westminster wisdom, which has long been that in the end, the PM will triumph. However, now, as before I don’t see how the numbers stack up. The PM still has around 15 or so Tory Remainers who will continue to vote the deal down, especially now no deal has effectively been taken off the table. The DUP may come round in the end (though I have my doubts about that) and with them most of the ERG but by no means all. There will not be enough Labour MPs to compensate; the only thing which would win them round is substantial changes to the political declaration (including a customs union), a promise for a much softer Brexit in the long term and a parliamentary lock on any future trade deal. If the PM were to do this she would lose a shedload of Tory MPs and risk fracturing her party – something she has proven completely unwilling to contemplate.
17.) A general election is all that’s left
If the PM loses again I do not believe she will be permitted a third go – the pressure to resign might prove immense. If she does not and she has given us no indication she will, the only card left for her to play is a general election, in the hope of swelling Tory ranks in a new parliament. That might prove tempting if she only loses the third vote by a substantially reduced margin, say 30 or 40. All she would need is another twenty seats or so and she would be home and dry (plus she would be able to say she had a mandate from the public for her deal). Perversely, the ERG might support her in a bid for an election rather than see the current parliament soften Brexit. In so doing, they would be able to retain their ideological purity by seeing May’s deal through without having to get their hands dirty themselves.