Though parliament rejected no deal, we’re now closer to it than ever

Well this is all going swimmingly, isn’t it? Another evening of parliamentary pantomime after which nothing of substance has been achieved. But what pantomime! We’ve seen the prime minister join her party in demanding changes to the deal negotiated by – the prime minister.

She backed an amendment that unpicked a deal she negotiated, thereby instructing herself to go back and try harder. Meanwhile, Labour demanded – and failed to get – a delay, without really knowing what it was for.

But the bottom line is clear. Sixty days to go until we are scheduled to leave the European Union. And we still don’t know what we want.

So what happened this evening? First, parliament proudly displayed its inability to decide. They decided, via the Caroline Spelman and Jack Dromey amendment, that they don’t want no deal – though only in a non-binding manner.

Heaven forbid options get definitively taken off the table.

Second, they supported an amendment calling for changes to the infamous Northern Ireland backstop.

Several things stand out from all this. First, Tory tribalism. The tantalising prospect of reforging party unity saw remainer Nicky Morgan making common cause with Brexiteers Iain Duncan Smith and Jacob Rees-Mogg. It must have felt great.

The problem is that it is a consensus built on … cake. The Graham Brady amendment called for alternative arrangements to replace the backstop. The assumption is, presumably, that the EU, confronted with a stirring demonstration of parliamentary unity (well, a 317-301 majority anyway) will cave in.

This seems unlikely at best. It is of course possible that, in extremis, the EU would reopen the withdrawal agreement. But there seems little reason to believe the member states would countenance the amendment, still less removal, of the backstop.

Clarifications or interpretations, yes. But not of a kind to change its meaning or the implications of what has already been agreed.

Meanwhile others, particularly on the Labour benches, hunt their own fantasy beasts – or, worse, simply misunderstand what is going on. The front bench continues to claim it would negotiate a better deal than the one secured by May.

The idea of a customs union with the UK having a say on EU trade deals is a personal favourite. Assorted backbenchers, meanwhile, justify their opposition to her deal in terms of their desire for things – a customs union most noticeably – that are completely consistent with that deal.

And so we have it. The natural party of government voting for unicorns. The party in opposition not quite sure what it wants.

And who emerged the happiest from this evening’s proceedings? The proceedings were grist to the mill of that – tiny – band of MPs who hanker after a no-deal outcome. For the European Research Group, the Brady amendment was a “win-win”.

Not only does the clock tick further down to 29 March while the prime minister tries to negotiate something the EU won’t accept. But the outline of a narrative of EU intransigence has come into sharper focus. “There was something we could agree to, but Brussels wouldn’t listen.”

 So where does all this leave us? Temporally closer to no deal. Even if it’s an outcome that parliament has rejected, the fact of being one day closer to 29 March means it is more likely to come about by mistake.

Apart from that, we wait. Wait for May to go back to Brussels and seek to achieve in under a fortnight what she failed to achieve in a year of negotiations. And wait for 13 February – when, it seems, parliament will again get a chance to figure out what it actually wants.

Now the prime minister has punched a backstop-shaped hole through her deal, there’s less reason than ever to think that MPs will settle on this.

By Anand Menon, director of The UK in a Changing Europe and professor of European politics and foreign affairs at King’s College London. This piece originally appeared in The Guardian.

Disclaimer:
The views expressed in this analysis post are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the UK in a Changing Europe initiative.

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