Shambolic: Brexit bombs in Parliament, May gov't teeters

Britain saw unity of a sort in yesterday’s Brexit vote. Theresa May united both Brexiteers and Remainers, and Tories and Labour, in managing to quarterback the worst defeat of a government bill in 100 years. Now the big question is whether May’s government can last longer than the UK’s time left on its Article 50 deadline:

Theresa May has pledged to face down a vote of no confidence in her government, after her Brexit deal was shot down by MPs in the heaviest parliamentary defeat of the democratic era.

On a day of extraordinary drama at Westminster, the House of Commons delivered a devastating verdict on the prime minister’s deal, voting against it by 432 to 202.

The scale of defeat, by a majority of 230, was greater than any seen in the past century, with ardent Brexiters such as Jacob Rees-Mogg and Boris Johnson walking through a packed division lobby cheek-by-jowl alongside passionate remainers.

At this moment, Parliament has already begun debating the no-confidence motion brought by Jeremy Corbyn, with a vote coming in the next few hours. ABC correspondent James Longman reports that May will “probably survive the crisis,” but the crisis will be far from over either way:

May’s coalition still has a majority in Parliament, and there’s little appetite for an election at this point. However, that thin majority is dependent on the ten seats held by the DUP, an alliance that has already created headaches in the Brexit effort. If May’s Northern Ireland allies bail out, she’s toast. If a handful of other Tories decide they’ve had enough, she’s toast. May just survived a leadership challenge and perhaps her party has had enough infighting for now. Or maybe they’re looking at this embarrassment and figure an election might clear the air.

So far, though, they’re circling the wagons:

However much many Conservative MPs dislike May’s Brexit plan they are not keen on an election, and even less keen on potentially allowing a Labour government into No 10. Thus very few, if any, are likely to vote with Corbyn.

Just as crucially, May’s DUP coalition partners, who voted against the Brexit deal, immediately pledged they would back the PM in the confidence vote.

The European Research Group of strongly pro-Brexit MPs, which opposed May’s deal, also swiftly said they would back her in the no-confidence motion. So she seems safe, at least for now.

That’s the view this morning. We’ll see what the afternoon brings.

So what’s next? The European Union would love to know — and they may want to delay matters to see just what’s possible to salvage now:

European Union leaders on Wednesday called on Britain to give them a clear plan to split from Europe, amid growing concerns that the political chaos that led to a historic defeat for British Prime Minister Theresa May’s Brexit plan could lead to a chaotic, uncontrolled crash out.

May had been widely expected to lose Tuesday’s vote, but the definitive scale of her rejection — 432 to 202 — helped feed a growing sense in the rest of the European Union that the March 29 Brexit deadline would need to be postponed, even if just to give both sides extra time to prepare for the turbulence that will result from having no safety net of a negotiated transition plan. …

But European policymakers also gave little ground on their insistence that any withdrawal deal adhere broadly to the principles of the one that was incinerated in the House of Commons. They said that the onus was on British lawmakers to come up with a proposal — any proposal — that could win a majority at home, so that there could be a basis for continued talks between the sides.

So far, Westminster appears unable to do so, with a clear majority only agreeing on scenarios that would be unacceptable and with no common vision for a single path forward.

May has had almost 30 months to come up with a plan that would both satisfy the EU and could get a majority vote in Parliament. We saw how that played out last night. The need to prevent a hard border in Ireland has proven to be an unsolvable problem, which could have been predicted even before the original Brexit referendum, although it’s hardly the only problem that May has not been able to resolve. Her own caucus is split between hard- and soft-Brexiteers, while the DUP that holds the key to her government refuses to give an inch on its own status within Brexit.

At the moment, there appears to be only two potential outcomes. The first is the “crash-out” or hard Brexit, in which the UK simply leaves without any economic  agreement with the EU. As Longman notes above, the economic consequences of such a break would be enormous, at least in the short term.

The other option is to have a second referendum to see whether British voters still want to pull the trigger on Brexit after watching the results of over two years of failure on the project. More support emerged last night for Door #2, especially if May survives the no-confidence vote today:

Half a dozen Labour MPs have declared themselves supporters of a second referendum for the first time at a hastily arranged photocall at Westminster, arguing it was the “the only logical option” if the party could not secure a general election.

Debbie Abrahams and Lilian Greenwood, both former frontbenchers, were among 71 MPs who signed a statement saying the party must back a second referendum hours before Jeremy Corbyn was due to move a vote of no confidence.

The statement said: “We must try and remove this government from office as soon as possible.” However, it added: “But the removal of the government and pushing for a general election may prove impossible.”

Well, Parliament seems to be making a habit of taking up impossible projects these days, so there’s that. However, some Tories have also come out in favor of a second referendum, including former PM John Major. It might be the only way for Parliament to exit their Brexit cul-de-sac. If a second referendum repeals Brexit, then it’s over. If it re-ratifies Brexit, then Parliament has a political mandate for a crash-out and its economic consequences. No voter could say that they went into a second referendum with blinders on, not after this series of unmitigated political disasters.

Jazz Shaw Jun 22, 2021 6:01 PM ET