Making social science accessible

14 Mar 2019

Politics and Society

Well, that seemed interminable. It was gone 7.20pm by the time the tellers appeared. And the prime minister was hammered again. 391-242 would, in normal times, represent a total humiliation. But we don’t live in normal times. Nowadays, the second biggest defeat in the House of Commons since 1924 represents progress.

The problem now confronting the prime minister is a relatively simple one. The endless, breathless speculation and rolling coverage of days such as today often feels more like football transfer deadline day than politics-as-usual. But as any football fan knows, deadline day depends on the existence of a fixed deadline that everyone accepts.

Yet once again today, there was a sense among MPs that this was not really, truly, the last chance saloon. Jean-Claude Juncker had declared that the EU would accept an extension until the European parliament elections.

The 29 March deadline will come and it will go. MPs will have the chance on Thursday to instruct May to seek a delay. So again, this was a free hit they took at the prime minister’s battered, bruised and bleeding bill.

But May was right to point out that these moves will “not solve the problems we face”. A massive vote against no deal will not, contrary to popular myth, take anything “off the table”. All it will do is illustrate that there is absolutely no appetite in parliament for this outcome.

Moving on, parliament still has a choice to make. Now, slowly, it is crystallising. Of all the things said in Strasbourg on Monday evening, Juncker said perhaps the most important.

First, he was clear that the European Union would not open negotiations again. As far as Brussels is concerned this is the only deal on the table, and further talks would be pointless.

Second, the EU would allow us an extension until the European parliament elections at the end of May. Any longer, and we would need to hold our own elections or move in some way towards a second referendum.

So maybe there is, finally, a deadline. And this will focus minds as never before. Brexiters will have to decide if they prefer this deal to the danger of no Brexit at all. Labour MPs opposed to another referendum will have to make up their minds.

Do they take the plunge and back a Conservative deal, or swallow a second popular vote? Remarkable though it may seem, at that point a majority for the deal might be within grasp.

Of course, parliament might try to seize control from the prime minister. MPs might try, for instance, to push for a longer extension, potentially one large enough to allow time for a referendum. The votes don’t seem to be present for this as yet.

If they did, don’t discount the possibility of the prime minister reacting to prevent this, conceivably by deciding to go back to the people herself to seek a new mandate.

But if things go as Downing Street must be hoping (assuming there is any hope left in Downing Street), then we would proceed with parliament having made clear it opposed no deal, and with the prime minister asking Brussels for a short extension.

At that point, MPs really will have choices to make.

It bears repeating, to conclude, how strange the times are in which we live. Among the consternation following the vote and the prime minister’s obvious disappointment at hearing the scale of her defeat, we had the sight of the leader of Her Majesty’s Government promising a free vote on no deal.

This was, in effect, an admission she has lost control of her party. Now government stands on the brink of losing control of parliament.

If it clings on, remarkably, May’s deal might yet come back for Meaningful Vote 3. If it doesn’t, what happens next is anyone’s guess.

By Anand Menon, director of The UK in a Changing Europe. This piece originally appeared in the Guardian.


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