Within the Commons you can find supporters of May’s deal, an alternative deal, no deal and no Brexit at all. The problem is that, as things stand, there’s no obvious majority for any of them.
Clearly, support for Mrs May’s deal is far from overwhelming (to say the least). But what we don’t know is whether support for anything else is higher. An absence of popular alternatives is becoming a common characteristic of British politics. Mrs May remains in Number 10 not because she’s particularly popular or considered to be particularly competent.
She’s there because there’s no consensus among the Conservatives as to who should replace her. And there is a solid consensus among them that Jeremy Corbyn as prime minister would be worse. Which is why, later today, the prime minister will doubtless survive the vote of no confidence (read this guide if you’re interested in the options open to Parliament).
At which point, things will start to move quite quickly. Jeremy Corbyn will have to decide whether or not to become more supportive of another referendum. If an election is not on the cards, what does he do next? He’s clearly not keen on the idea of a ‘people’s vote’, but risks infuriating his MPs, his party members and many of his voters if he does not move in this direction.
This very morning a group of Labour MPs gathered outside the House of Commons to show their support for a referendum and place pressure on their leader. At the same time, the failure of the no confidence motion will prompt some soul searching on the benches behind him. For all the noisy supporters of a referendum, there are plenty of Labour MPs who view the idea with – to put it mildly – some trepidation.
‘We want an election’ served as a useful stalling device, a way of avoiding the fundamental choice all parliamentarians will eventually face between a deal, no deal and a referendum.
By this evening, that device will no longer function. And on Monday, when the government brings forward a statement and the prime minister informs the Commons how she intends to proceed, the choice will become starker still.
In all likelihood, the subsequent vote on that statement will attract amendments – maybe on customs union and single market membership, maybe on a second referendum.
And, at last – at long, long last – we will start to get a sense of how many MPs are in favour of which option. When MPs filed into the ‘no’ lobby last night, they were registering their dislike of one of a number of options confronting them. The prime minister’s calculation is that, as the choice becomes blunter, as the three options crystallise, MPs will come to reevaluate her deal.
At the end of the day, if the UK leaves the EU with a deal, this Withdrawal Agreement will be part of that deal. Certainly, the EU might, if they are convinced that Theresa May has a chance of cobbling together a majority, agree to reword the (non-binding) Political Declaration.
They might even provide an ‘interpretive letter,’ lodged with the UN, and so carrying legal force, underlining the fact they want to avoid triggering the backstop. But what about the Withdrawal Agreement? It remains extremely unlikely that they will want to reopen this.
And it is inconceivable that they will do so in such a way as to water down the backstop, and hence let Dublin down. Brexit seems to have been going on forever. And yet, amazing though it may seem, MPs are only just getting to grips with the real choice that confronts them.
The prime minister was humiliated in the Commons last night – yet arguably more significant was the fact that the vote, finally, marked the moment when the House of Commons began what promises to be rather lengthy and ill-tempered process of elimination. Her deal is on life support and not looking well at all. But it is still too soon to say, definitively, that it is dead.
By Professor Anand Menon, director of The UK in a Changing Europe. This piece originally featured in the Metro.