432 to 202! We doubt any of our readers require the context of this result but perhaps the below offers some complementary speculation on the challenges ahead for Brexit following yesterday’s vote.
There are only 72 days until the current Article 50 March 29th deadline is reached; but those that follow communications from the European Commission will know that their contingency plan clearly states that parties must “Submit all necessary draft implementing acts for a vote in the competent committees by 15 February 2019 at the latest.” So the likelihood is that (save an AGREED extension) there are now at most only 30 days left to reach an acceptable agreement. It will have to be acceptable to at least an additional 115 MPs and the existing supporters (many already reluctant) of the deal, as well as of course, the rest of the European Union. Few think this is possible; so what alternatives are there other than a no-deal Brexit?
During the debate preceding the futile vote Geoffrey Cox MP, Attorney General advised that although withdrawing Article 50 is legally viable, this is only under the expectation and intention that it is exactly that: a withdrawal and not just a ploy to withdraw and reassert Article 50 in order to swindle an extension. If this is the case, then this invalidates the hopes of many MPs that have been calling for such. The only other obvious route to an extension of the deadline is for the EU to agree one which will require Parliament to demonstrate a proposal that will have sufficient backing and has at least a chance of being unanimously preferred or acceptable by the other 27 members of the EU.
Perhaps this could look like a second referendum, with the EU hoping for a remain vote win but Parliament cautious not to express such an anti-democratic view. How one would spin such an uncertain proposal and arrange a potential three-way vote would be challenging for the Government but also for Parliament and Labour who pushed for and knowingly voted for the Article 50 timeline two years ago by a 384 majority.
Perhaps Prime Minister Theresa May can about turn towards a soft-Brexit – A Norway model with however many plusses – but she has yet to express any intention of such ahead of her no-confidence vote. There has continued to be cross-party support of the Norway Plus model: with the UK a member of the European Free Trade Association (EFTA), the European Economic Area (EEA) as well as a separate customs union. Leavers would at least get the wins of withdrawing from the European Court of Justice as well as the Common Agricultural and Fisheries Policies but the costs, concessions and lack of command in steering the EU will be unpalatable to many. Moreover, despite the cross-party support polls suggest that a “Norway-plus” style deal will still be a difficult sell. Additionally, many “remainers” are reluctant to support a second referendum given the lasting damage it could cause to public opinion on the health of the UK’s democracy and trustworthiness of both parties.
Given the colossal 230 vote defeat, gaining a hearing with the EU will require bipartisan support as May is unlikely to conjure anything remotely viable that will be endorsed by all the 118 Tory rebels who voted against the deal (as well as the handful that abstained but may not next time if their vote is likely to be decisive). The DUP remain staunchly against the “backstop” proposal despite the seeming support of Northern Irish manufacturing and farming businesses as well as the Republic of Ireland accepting it is likely the “best compromise”. Following the vote, the EU's Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, has continued to insist the Irish border backstop "must remain" as part of the deal while Sammy Wilson of the DUP reiterated that “Backstop is the bottom line and is not up for negotiation” along with many MPs across parties: as seen by the number of tabled amendments yesterday expressing so. One might now speculate that many in Labour may just quietly want to see the Tories fail. If the vote of no confidence tabled by Jeremy Corbyn is unsuccessful today, as expected, they may be happy to leave Mrs May to keep hold of the wheel of a sinking ship and not go out of their way to help her succeed if they can find even minor faults with her proposal.
Following yesterday’s vote Jean-Claude Juncker, European Commission President, said that the striking defeat in the Commons vote "increased the risk of a disorderly withdrawal" expressing regret at such vast opposition to "the best possible deal". Mr Juncker urged “the United Kingdom to clarify its intentions as soon as possible." Mrs May really doesn’t have much time to meet Mr Junker’s challenge, but she must to prove him wrong.