You could tell that the result of tonight’s vote on the Brady amendment (which calls for alternative arrangements to replace the Northern Irish backstop) came as a surprise to those at the top of government from the look on Chief Whip Julian Smith’s face as he re-entered the Commons. He looked as though he had spent the past few hours trapped in a ghost house of horrors at a funfair. Smith had, like his colleagues in Downing Street, thought that this amendment was going to fail with a narrow margin until minutes before the result was announced. Instead, it passed with a surprising majority of 16.
When Theresa May responded to this result in a point of order, the Prime Minister was visibly happy and relieved to have this opportunity to kick the Brexit can along the road for a little while longer. But she wasn’t triumphalist, and not just because she was reacting with some surprise to the events of the past few minutes. May was careful to pivot back to trying to appeal across parliament, telling MPs that there was now a majority for a deal which included a change to the backstop, a strengthened role for parliament, and better protections for workers’ rights. That last, coupled with an invitation to Jack Dromey and other MPs from across the House who had supported amendments which tried to rule out a no deal Brexit, was clearly a pitch to the Labour MPs she needs to get the real deal through the Commons.
The problem for May, though, is that she has spent so much effort trying to keep her party together over the past few days that she almost appears to have forgotten what relations with opposition MPs and indeed European leaders are like. The current Brussels position is that there is no way the withdrawal agreement can be opened up again and the backstop changed. The Prime Minister does have a stronger case to make to the EU now that she has a reasonable majority behind the Brady amendment and, perhaps just as importantly, now that Yvette Cooper’s no deal amendment has fallen as it shows European leaders that there is a real risk of no deal. This may concentrate minds in Brussels, given negotiators had previously believed that there was a majority for a softer Brexit and against no deal.