After Theresa May mysteriously evaporated from the Commons following tonight’s government defeat, Downing Street has issued a statement insisting that nothing has changed. The official line is, somewhat tortuously, that the previous set of indicative votes from MPs were the ones that mattered, whereas this one didn’t. A No.10 spokesman said:
‘While we didn’t secure the support of the Commons this evening, the Prime Minister continues too believe, and the debate itself indicated, that far from objecting to securing changes to the backstop that will allow us to leave with a deal, there was a concern from some Conservative colleagues about taking no deal off the table at this stage.
‘The motion on 29th January remains the only one the House of Commons has passed expressing what it does want – and that is legally-binding changes to address concerns about the backstop. The Government will continue to pursue this with the EU to ensure we leave on time on 29th March.’
It’s notable that Downing Street only refers to the need for changes to the backstop in defining what it is that the Commons wants. But Theresa May will now have a much harder time convincing European leaders that the Commons does know what it wants at all.
Chief whip Julian Smith made his exasperation clear this evening as he left the Chamber, shaking his head at Brexiteer Tories. But the government does not emerge well from this incident, either. It had assumed that everything would be hunky dory with tonight’s motion, and only ended up negotiating with the European Research Group in the past 36 hours. Tonight’s statement from Downing Street appears to be an attempt to move on from this stand-off and placate the ERG by saying that only the backstop matters, anyway.