At 7.38pm history was made and precedent broken. After two years of negotiations, and three years after the referendum, the Prime Minister’s proposed Brexit deal was defeated by the largest margin of MPs in parliamentary history, breaking the previous record held by Ramsay McDonald in 1924. Then, a majority of 166MPs voted against the Government, and the Prime Minister was forced to admit defeat. Tonight, Theresa May lost by 230 votes, and yet, reflecting the stubborn fashion of her premiership, she continues as PM.
What happened tonight?
After a decision by the SNP and Labour to try and maximise the number of MPs voting against the Withdrawal Agreement, both parties pulled their previously planned amendments, leaving Conservative MP John Baron’s attempt to give the UK the unilateral right to terminate the Northern Ireland backstop, as the only amendment to be voted on.
At 7.22pm it was announced that this had been rejected by a resounding 600MPs and thus John Bercow unlocked the voting lobbies for the most historic decision to be taken by the House of Commons since the May 1940 Norway debate in the midst of World War Two.
With the history and significance of the vote ringing in their ears, early speculation from MPs’ posting photos of a crammed no voting lobby, suggested a large defeat for the Government. As the Prime Minister prepared to vote, she was seen speaking to Labour MP Tulip Siddiq, who at 37 weeks pregnant, had delayed her caesarean in order to vote against the deal, and would have also been able to see her husband Phillip May as he sat watching events unfold. The personal decisions and reflections taking place for each individual MP, marked a significant change to the technical negotiations that have consumed Brexit.
As the chamber filled, and the sense of anticipation increased, with news channels across the world focussing on Parliament, it was revealed how 202MPs had voted for the deal, and 432 against, including 118 Tories and all 10 DUP MPs.
Immediately after the result, Jeremy Corbyn tabled a motion of no confidence in the Government, which will be voted on tomorrow. However, after the ERG and DUP stated their support for the Prime Minister, the motion is expected to be defeated.
This small victory for the Government will only mask the difficulties that lie ahead, in a Parliament only able to move forward by blocking each other’s plans. In defeat, Number 10 had hoped for a small enough group of opposing MPs to be able to whittle them away with one amendment after another. The reality, though, is much worse. A defeat on such a scale, leaves the Government with no obvious route to victory. Appeasing one group, will only lead to angering another. Without a fundamental change to the Withdrawal Agreement, something the EU has repeatedly ruled out, reducing a group of 230 MPs will be incredibly difficult. Making this even more problematic, is the EU’s position that they will only renegotiate when they know what will be accepted by MPs. As a result, this leaves the chances of a similar deal being voted through slimmer than many in Government had hoped.
Among the 432 MPs that voted against the deal, also lay worrying news for the Prime Minister. Immediately after the defeat, Number 10 briefed that it was prepared to work with Labour to find common ground in reforming the deal, but that it did not meet Labour’s demands for a Customs Union. However, hopes for any cooperation with Labour were dashed after only three Labour MPs voted for the deal — changing Brexit to suit Labour would likely have further split the Tory Party.
Each possible path is blighted with problems. There are minority groups of MPs supporting a delay or suspension to Article 50, a second referendum, and no deal — but neither have enough support to build a majority. Hardline Brexiteers had believed that because no deal, by law, was the default position if agreement failed to be found, they just had to wait for the clock to tick down.
However, after the Speaker controversially took power away from the Government, and gave it to MPs, this plan was dashed, leaving the clock ticking to March 29; the only thing moving in a House consumed by impasse.
What happens next?
The very question of the referendum has been impossible to solve by our two-party democratic system, and perhaps this is the first moment of realisation that MPs are unable to translate Leave into something supported by even a significant proportion of the 52 per cent, without breaking the parliamentary system. Over the next few days new groups of MPs will form, coalescing not around party lines but Brexit positions.
With all sides starting from a minority position, including the Government, who gains the early momentum is key. Speculation is that 100 Labour MPs will today pledge support for a second referendum, providing this group in Parliament with an early lead. However, power at the moment is in the hands of the Government, with a Prime Minister who cannot be unseated — after the failed leadership vote last December — and who appears unlikely to radically change direction tact. If Downing Street is unable to use its position of power, by proposing a changed deal quickly, then it may well come to Parliament breaking all precedent and wrestling power away from the executive.
If May maintains control, her deal remains unlikely to pass. Meanwhile, Parliament is consumed by disagreement and uncompromising positions. The future of Brexit and democracy is at stake with each step watched by an increasingly frustrated and alienated public.
For the first time in these negotiations, ironically at the very end, the chances of Brexit not happening on March 29 are increasing. However, this may be the way the Prime Minister secures victory. By warning of the risk of Brexit not taking place, something she began to argue in her statements yesterday, there may be a chance that hardline Eurosceptics, fearful of their dream falling through, may now vote for her deal.
However, this ignores the very problem of her deal. It has become a technical one; prevented from being passed because of its complex issues over the backstop, and therefore it is arguable that a technical change needs to happen instead of a ‘big picture’ change in its selling message. This reflects the issue besetting all these negotiations: The EU is an institution built on laws and a constitution, the UK is not. Perhaps the most significant victory in these negotiations was allowing the deal to become the property of the EU and being managed in a way so that it observes political procedure.
Nevertheless, with each rival group refusing to compromise, stalemate reigns. Someone will have to blink. Otherwise, impasse rules whilst public frustration grows, and the traditional party system is broken by the referendum result.