On 15 January, Theresa May suffered the greatest defeat of any British Prime Minister when she put the draft deal she has struck with the EU to a vote in the House of Commons. The deal was rejected by 432 votes against to 202 votes for, a colossal majority against accepting the deal of 230.
The bald figures are terrible enough, but they are even worse than they appear for the government’s “payroll vote” of MPs holding government office is around 140. These would be expected to vote with the Government. Hence, May will have only attracted around 60 backbenchers (who within reason can vote as they like) to support her draft deal.
This gives May and her government a tremendous problem because ever since she came back to Parliament with the draft deal, she has been saying it is her way or the highway as she has stubbornly insisted that no other deal is available and that a failure to accept it could mean no Brexit. The draft deal she has agreed offers Brexit in name only (Brino) and resembles the type of treaty a defeated enemy who had sued for peace might agree to. Such is the subordination of the UK interests which according to many commentators would leave the UK as a vassal state. The Commons showed what they thought of the goods on offer and chose to reject them in the most spectacular fashion.
The problem is that May is still Prime Minister. The day after suffering the defeat over her deal a vote of No Confidence in the Government was defeated by 325 votes to 306. This means that she stays as Prime Minister and the threat of an early General Election has receded. Nor can she face another Tory leadership challenge for the better part of a year because she won a vote of No Confidence in her leadership just before Christmas.
The defeat of May’s deal is encouraging for Brexiteers inasmuch as the overwhelming result should have greatly lessened any thoughts May had of coming back with a few insignificant cosmetic changes made to the deal nearer the 29th March leaving date. However, that is still a possibility, and there are many other threats to thwart a true Brexit. If there is a serious breakdown of party discipline, there is nothing to stop remainer MPs doing anything they want because the house of Commons consists of a substantial majority of remainers.
There is one bright light amongst this gloom for Brexiteers, namely the fact that the date for the UK’s leaving is fixed in an Acct of Parliament.
Section 20 of the European Union (Withdrawal ) Act 2018 states ‘“exit day” means 29 March 2019 at 11.00 p.m.’
To change the date of the UK leaving the EU requires either an amendment to or repeal of the Act.
While the Brexit leaving date remains unchanged, it does not matter what else happens because it places a legal obligation on the UK to leave. Consequently, a second referendum cannot be held, an extension of Article 50 cannot be sought by the UK or granted by the EU and Article 50 cannot be revoked. In addition remainers, however, aided and abetted by a remainer Speaker of the Commons, cannot ultimately stop the UK leaving the EU on 29 March.
However, the House of Commons is remainer dominated (around 6o%) and could vote to amend or repeal the leaving date, but there are serious obstacles to that happening.
To begin with, it would nakedly expose their anti-democratic partisanship. Ever since the referendum, most remainers have constantly bleated the refrain that they honour the result whilst making it perfectly clear that they want to sabotage Brexit. If they alter the leaving date that pretence would be unsupportable because once the date was altered or removed completely from the Act, the remainers would be forced to commit themselves to going down one of these paths:
- Extend the two-year Article 50 negotiating period, perhaps indefinitely.
- Revoke Article 50
- Announce that the UK is remaining in the EU.
- Legislate for another referendum on Brexit.
There is also the possibility of a snap General Election if no one could command a majority in the Commons.
Having their true feelings and intentions towards Brexit exposed will be more than embarrassing for many MPs because there are many constituencies – and especially ones filled by Labour MPs – which voted heavily to leave the EU while their MP voted to remain and has consistently opposed Brexit by fair means or foul. Consequently, leave voters might well punish remainer MPs in leave constituencies.
Ed: Part II of this essay will be published tomorrow here on INDEPENDENCE Daily