If a tree falls in a forest but there is no one around to hear it fall, does it make a sound? Last night’s vote created a sort of Schrodinger’s defeat for the Government. It both is and is not important. Or, rather, it is completely insignificant legally but potentially momentous politically.
In law, the situation is unchanged. The UK will automatically leave the EU on the 29th of March – deal or no deal – and nothing that Parliament has voted for or against since it endorsed the triggering of Article 50 has changed that fact. This includes last night’s defeat of the Government’s neutral progress update and the support two weeks ago for Caroline Spelman’s anti no deal vote. Unless and until Parliament elects to vote for something like the Cooper-Boles Bill (more on that later) we are on a one-way, downhill course to Brexit.
In political terms, though, something has changed. The ERG voted against their own Government because they felt that the neutral motion, endorsing the last round of votes and providing for an update on progress (spoiler, there hasn’t been any), watered down the Government’s political commitment to no deal as the default. They also believe that by demonstrating their intransigence and refusal to compromise they will have shown Brussels that it needs to surrender on the backstop if it wants to get a deal. Their logic goes like this – if they can get rid of the backstop they can claim victory, if they don’t and we drop out they can pin the blame on Eurocrats. They might be right, they might be wrong, but they have nailed their colours to the mast now and as far as the EU is concerned there is not now a renegotiation that can lead to a united Tory vote for the deal. They have written off such a possibility.
Where does that leave Theresa May? During the election campaign she predicted that if he became PM Jeremy Corbyn would find himself ‘alone and naked in the negotiating chamber’. ‘I know you are, but what am I?’ and all that. She now finds herself in precisely that position. Her party is making demands it does not believe she can deliver on. Her negotiating partners have given up any and all hope of achieving a deal that can unite Tory MPs in support without selling out Ireland.
So, what happens now? Well, the next ‘meaningful vote’ is scheduled for the 27th of February and that is also when Yvette Cooper, Nick Boles and their friends (Oliver Letwin etc) will bring their Bill instructing Government to extend Article 50 if no deal is passed. It is very difficult to imagine a scenario in which May’s deal passes. Some cosmetic change to the political declaration or even a codicil in the Withdrawal Agreement does not look likely to satisfy the ERG. There simply aren’t the numbers of Labour rebels to bail her out. In which case, Cooper-Boles or some variation thereof will probably pass – but only if the cadre of Tory Ministers who keep promising to resign finally do so. At which point there will be no incentive for anyone – Labour rebel, ERG, DUP, anyone – to support the deal because the threat of no deal will have disappeared. And at that point – if we get there – our exhausted, haunted political class will look for a way out.
A People’s Vote? Maybe. But it needs Labour’s support. A General Election? Perhaps. Something will have to happen to break the impasse and change the dynamic. Why? Because all extending Article 50 does is set a new deadline. The clock doesn’t stop forever.