I made the mistake of watching the Commons vote on May’s deal yesterday.
May had failed to get better terms from the EU side. So I didn’t think her deal would pass. The deal ended up losing by 149 votes.
I expected, at least, a show for the cameras.
But everyone just looked tired. May’s voice was gone. There wasn’t much left for her to say anyway. Corbyn waffled for 60 seconds, then meekly returned to his seat.
May’s given up on trying to pass her deal, for now.
So today, there’ll be a vote on whether the house is in favour or against a no-deal Brexit.
If you’re worried about planes crashing out of the sky and all the other nasty stuff that comes with no-deal, you might think this is a good. Surely parliament won’t vote in favour of no-deal? Won’t this vote protect us from it?
Well, the good news is that parliament is likely to vote against a no-deal Brexit. The bad news is that no-deal is still the default option, and nothing in today’s vote changes that.
Whether parliament is in favour or against no-deal is irrelevant — what matters is whether parliament is willing to do the things that could prevent no-deal.
The three options
There are three things parliament could do to prevent no-deal.
The first is to revoke article 50 — basically, to cancel Brexit. In December, the European Union’s top court found that the UK can change its mind over Brexit and revoke article 50. Plenty of MPs would love to take this option. But they’d need the cover of a second referendum first.
The second thing parliament could do is vote for May’s deal. Clearly, Parliament isn’t interested in this option.
The third option is to ask for an extension to article 50. For this, the UK would need the EU’s agreement. According to Angela Merkel, getting an extension would be “easy”. So it’s seen as the most likely option. But the problem is it merely pushes the cliff edge back by a few months. Nothing else changes.
After an article 50 extension, something’s going to have to change. Someone’s going to have to take control of the situation.
The three camps
Who could take control? Well again, there are three camps.
There’s the Prime Minister’s camp of pragmatic Brexiters. In the votes over May’s deal, they’ve shown they don’t have a majority. There are 230-250 of them. (reminder: there are 639 voting MPs in the Commons, so 320 is needed for a majority)
There’s the ERG camp of 70-100 MPs who want Brexit at any cost, including no-deal. There aren’t enough of them to pass anything on their own. But they have the power to block other camps from getting a majority. If they play their cards right, they could force no deal by blocking all the other camps’ plans.
And there’s the soft Brexit / no Brexit camp. Basically it all comes down to them.
They’re not as united as the ERG camp, or even the Prime Minister’s camp. But if they can all be corralled together to vote for one proposal — such as Corbyn’s soft-Brexit deal — they could win the day. There are 300-350 of them.
The problem is that they’re a motley crew of moderate Tories, Labour, Lib Dem, Scottish National Party and The Independent Group. And they have no clear plan, apart from hating no-deal. Some want a people’s vote (and ultimately, no Brexit), others would stomach May’s deal, others want a Norway-style soft Brexit.
To avoid no-deal, someone’s going to have to step up. Corbyn clearly doesn’t want to do it, but he might be forced to. If not him, who? Maybe someone like Dominic Grieve, the Conservative former Attorney General who’s consistently led the charge against no deal.
And what do I think?
I think that no-deal is scary enough that the Soft Brexit camp will finally coalesce. At the end of the day, I think there’ll be 320 votes for some sort of deal that’s way less Brexity than the type put forward by Theresa May, or the type expected by the ERG.
But there are only 17 days left, now.
Still no unity from the soft Brexit camp.
Still a decent chance the UK stumbles over the cliff.