Westminster has been a febrile place for months, but today, as the meaningful vote on Theresa May’s Brexit vote approaches, it has tipped into something quite different. The streets around the House of Commons are lined with protesters from all sides, clutching placards, ringing bells and chanting. Flags are swirling, balloons are bobbling in the air, and drivers are honking their horns – though having cycled through the crowd earlier, I’m not sure whether the horns are necessarily ones of support for one group or another, or actually just drivers trying to stop people wandering out in front of them in the road.
Inside the parliamentary estate, though, the mood is rather more studied. The Tory whips are working on two problems: the first being the size of tonight’s defeat, and the second being the likely vote of no confidence in the government that Jeremy Corbyn will table afterwards.
Even though the government is likely to win the second, there have been a number of contributions to this afternoon’s debate from Conservative MPs who are complaining about the way the Prime Minister has approached this vote. Justine Greening for instance told the Chamber that it had been obvious since the summer that May would lose, and attacked the ‘failure of the frontbench’. These attacks are hardly surprising, given the result of the Conservative party vote of confidence in their leader before Christmas. There is much frustration with May’s procrastination on important matters in the Brexit negotiations, with her reluctance to concede that defeat is looming, and with her refusal to discuss a Plan B with Cabinet colleagues.
On that Plan B, the whips look as though they may need to redouble their efforts with Sir Edward Leigh, who they had believed was on side. He has just told the Commons that he may vote against May’s deal tonight after Geoffrey Cox ‘slapped down’ his amendment. Leigh had earlier told the Commons that his plan ‘could unite the party, or most of it’ and allow the government to move forward. But Cox argued that it ‘would, in my judgement, not be compatible with our international law obligations’.
Those outside Parliament are now playing music as they gather to demand their various versions of Brexit (or no Brexit at all). Inside the Commons, the mood music is not at all sympathetic to the predicament that May finds herself in, largely because many MPs believe that the Prime Minister has put herself into this problem, rather than being pushed there.