It’s been a disappointing night for the Remain and soft Brexit factions of parliament. Ahead of the votes on amendments to Theresa May’s Brexit plan, there had been a hope among some that the votes would serve as an opportunity to soften the government’s Brexit position. After the Prime Minister’s deal was voted down by 230 votes last month, a number of MPs – as well as officials in Brussels – read it as a sign that the only way to get a Brexit deal through parliament was for May to pivot to a softer Brexit.
Tonight those hopes were dashed – at least for the timebeing. Graham Brady’s government supported amendment calling for an alternative arrangement to the backstop won a majority of Commons support (Isabel has details on Coffee House of how realistic that ask is). Meanwhile, Yvette Cooper’s much hyped amendment to stop a no-deal Brexit by forcing the government to extend Article 50 if it looked likely, fell short. Dominic Grieve’s amendment calling for days to debate the other Brexit options also failed. The only other Brexit amendment that did pass was that put forward by Caroline Spelman and Jack Dromey. That amendment simply asserted that the House was against no deal. It carries only political weight so doesn’t force the government to do anything to stop it.
So, why did MPs like Yvette Cooper believe they had a chance of winning? In the end, the downfall of Cooper’s plan was the Labour MPs who represent Leave constituencies. A chunk of these MPs voted against the proposals. Ahead of the vote, I reported how some of these MPs were anxious about the amendment as they could be accused of trying to delay or even stop Brexit. That makes the idea of a majority of MPs voting for a second referendum – as they would need to do to bring one about – seem very unlikely.
This is not to say the Brexiteers are out of the woods. There’s every chance ERG support will drop off in the coming weeks. What’s more, there will be more attempts in the coming weeks and months to take no deal off the table. A number of Remain-leaning ministers say they only held off rebelling this time in order to give May time to negotiate but will rebel if no deal starts to look more likely. It follows that Brexit could well be softened still. But the votes have given May one last chance to try and get a Brexit that Leave MPs can get behind. It’s also shown that there is a majority in Parliament for a clean Brexit – should the EU have any inclination to make such a deal a reality. For now at least, it’s clear that tonight the Remainers were on the losing side.