Westminster was braced for a heavy government defeat. But few were expecting a loss on this scale: 230 votes. It is hard to believe that the 116 MPs May needs for a majority can be persuaded to change their minds by tweaks to the backstop. So, what May thought would be her plan, going back to Brussels, trying to get something and then bringing the deal back is now off the table. In her response to the defeat, May made clear that she accepts she needs to reach out across the House before going back to Brussels.
But the problem is it is very hard to see what combination of changes gains her the support of 116 MPs. For example, if May went for a customs union she’d gain some Labour support, but likely see some Tories fall into the other column. Strikingly, the government is still saying that an independent trade policy will be one of its principles for the talks ahead.
At the same time, May’s statement was a reminder that she really doesn’t want to do no deal. Both May and Geoffrey Cox wouldn’t have put such an emphasis on an orderly exit in their speeches today if she was seriously considering no deal as her plan B. May also knows that one of the very few things that could make her lose a confidence vote in the near future would be a sense that no deal was where she was heading.
Tonight, Theresa May’s Brexit deal was knocked down by the House of Commons. But it is far from clear what will be put in its place. Not for decades has there been such uncertainty about what is going to happen next in British politics.