Yesterday was – optically, at least – the best day the Prime Minister has had in ages. In years, in fact. For the first time since the 2017 General Election Theresa May got her own way on something Brexit-related in Parliament.
Leave aside, for now, the potential meaninglessness of it all. Forget, if you can, that this victory was built on fantasies and that it will almost certainly unravel in the coming days. Focus, instead, on how it looks and how it feels.
Most close observers had expected Yvette Cooper and Nick Boles’ amendment (forcing the Government’s hand on Article 50 suspension in the event of No Deal) to pass if Labour whipped for it. Labour did whip for it. And yet it failed. Why? In part, because the expected (and promised) resignations in support from Government Ministers never came. In part, too, because a significant number of Labour MPs with Leave seats or Leave instincts either abstained or voted with the Government. This was the best chance that Parliament has had (and may ever have) for turning the sound bite that ‘there is no majority for No Deal’ into reality. It doesn’t matter if there is a majority against something if that majority refuses to vote against it. And so, No Deal stays on the table and remains the status quo should nothing else now happen. That means the ERG have an incentive once again to help the PM run down the clock.
This they did by supporting the ‘Brady’ amendment, which demands that a subset clause (binding in law) be inserted into the backstop or that ‘other options’ are deployed instead.
In order to win this Parliamentary battle, Mrs May has had to sacrifice one of her key pieces of armour. Up to now she has kept critics of her deal (on all sides) at bay with the assertion that the Withdrawal Agreement (the legally binding aspect of her deal with the EU) cannot be reopened. This was her line and it remains the emphatic line of the EU itself. This is the deal on the table, they say, and negotiations are over. But the PM has changed tack and now tells her party that the Withdrawal Agreement can be reopened after all, and that doing so will result in further compromises on the much-maligned backstop.
This reversal won Mrs May her votes and united her party (ish, for a while) but it does not answer the bigger question and it does rather beg some of its own. If the EU will not reopen negotiations (and for now they are adamant on that front) then we are literally back to square one – trolleying along to No Deal with no majority in Parliament for anything else that the EU will countenance. But even if they will then – well, why stop there? Maybe we shouldn’t be paying £39 billion, the ERG will muse. Maybe we could have another run at Norway, soft leavers will wonder. She has answered one challenge, for now, but she has opened Pandora’s Box.
Meanwhile, two alternative Brexits sit in the wings. The ‘Malthouse Compromise’ is in fact just a sequence of scenarios – some of which we have already been through before arriving at this impasse – with ‘managed No Deal’ as the endpoint if nothing better crops up. In other words, it is the same in every meaningful way as the status quo. The fact that Tories from all wings have flocked to this masquerade is a tribute to both the party’s desire for unity and its loathing of solutions provided by the PM almost because they are provided by the PM. It solves nothing diplomatically and it solves nothing in terms of Parliamentary arithmetic. Finally, Jeremy Corbyn has now agreed to go and speak to May about his plans – a customs union, in essence – but one very much doubts she will be in the mood to listen. At least not for the time being, whilst she enjoys an unusual period of quiet and cooperation from her backbenches.
A lot of noise, then (and my goodness there was a lot of noise in the debate) and a holiday from hell for Mrs May (or, at least, a city break). But what has changed? Characteristically for this Prime Minister the answer is ‘nothing’. Nothing has changed.