After delays, prevarications, and attempts to sideline Parliament, Theresa May finally put her deal to the House of Commons on Tuesday. Theresa May never wanted this vote. She wanted to ram her deal through Parliament without any vote at all. Today we discovered just why she was so reluctant to put the matter to a vote, this Prime Minister who preaches to us about respecting democratic votes. The government achieved 202 votes. Her opponents got 432.
The majority by which Theresa May lost was greater than the total number of MPs who backed her. 118 Conservative MPs voted against their own government. It was one of the greatest defeats for a government in the history of the British Parliament.
If Theresa May had had her way this deal would have been forced upon the UK without any meaningful say from that House of Commons whose sovereignty Brexit was supposed to restore but which the Prime Minister has done her utmost to muzzle. Today the Commons bit back, and bit back hard.
To lose by such a margin on the central policy of the government was a stunning defeat, a defeat which would have made any other Prime Minister resign. But this is not a normal government and Theresa May is not a normal Prime Minister. She got herself into this mess because she refused to face reality, and she shows every sign of continuing to do so, the Monty Python Black Knight of British politics. No normal politician can survive this degree of humiliation, but the humiliation algorithms are missing from Theresa May’s operating system. She’s as likely to resign as Tommy Robinson is to convert to Islam. Only now that I’ve written that that’s probably what she’ll do. That’s just how uncertain and unstable British politics are just now. How’s that security and stability of the UK working out for you all?
The Prime Minister had the unmitigated gall, just before the vote, to call upon MPs of all parties to set aside their differences and work together in the national interest. The very reason she suffered a defeat of such magnitude was precisely because during the two and a half years since the Brexit referendum, Theresa May has refused to listen to anyone, has been unable or unwilling to concede that other points of view exist, never mind make accommodations with them, and has worked solely in the interests of the Conservative party.
The full extent of the defeat might have come as something of a surprise, but not the defeat itself. All day, the news was full of interviews with Tory backbenchers who were going to reject their Prime Minister’s deal, the kind which the party managers usually strive to keep away from the telly cameras, and with very good reason. Some of them looked deeply creepy, the kind of person who’d go for a ride on a ghost train and come out with a job offer as an exhibit.
The DUP’s Sammy Wilson came out of the funfair to inform us that that the magnitude of the defeat made it more likely that the EU would do what it has consistently said it won’t do, and renegotiate. Sammy thinks that the EU will be so shocked by just how resoundingly the deal was rejected that they’ll do all they can to help Theresa May to come up with a deal which is more acceptable to the likes of Sammy. It was the clearest example you could ever wish for of the magical thinking that characterises Brexit.
What the size of this defeat has done has been to derail Theresa May’s Plan B, which was to keep repeating Plan A until everyone else was bored and battered into submission. It seems that if the defeat had been less than 100, the Prime Minister intended to keep returning to Parliament with marginally tweaked versions of it until it might finally squeeze through. That she lost by 230 votes means that strategy is now a non-starter. The problem is that she doesn’t appear to have any other.
As soon as the result was announced, Jeremy Corbyn called a motion of no confidence, which is due to be debated tomorrow (Wednesday). Jeremy, in the event that he’s successful in bringing down the government, will campaign in the General Election for his own version of Brexit. So much for that internationalism of the Labour movement then.
However the DUP and the European Research Group of hardline Tory Brexists have both confirmed that they’ll be voting to support the government. The likelihood is that Theresa May will survive the no confidence vote. The DUP and the ERG might hate Theresa’s Brexit deal, but they hate Jeremy Corbyn even more. They might not like the Northern Irish backstop, but they’re fully on board with cutting the income of disabled people, the burgeoning use of foodbanks, the rise in homelessness and rough sleeping, cutting public services to the bone, and flogging off the NHS to American corporations.
So where are we now? We have a Parliament which is opposed to no deal, but a government which refuses to rule one out. If Parliament is opposed to no deal but no one can propose an actual deal that’s going to get sufficient support, where does that leave the UK?
The SNP MP Joanna Cherry has proposed a national unity government, which the SNP could support in return for the transfer to Holyrood of the power to hold an indy ref and control of immigration within Scotland. She says this government could suspend Article 50 and call another referendum on retaining EU membership, no deal, or some version of a deal. Unfortunately Labour doesn’t seem disposed to look favourably to this idea at the moment, even though it has the advantage of being palatable to those Conservative backbenchers who put avoiding no deal before their support of Theresa May. The DUP’s stranglehold on the government would then be broken. Perhaps once Jeremy’s motion of no confidence fails then Labour may be willing to consider Joanna’s plan. It seems unlikely, but when all that is left is a choice between the implausible and the impossible, it’s the implausible which wins.
No one knows what’s going to happen. No one can say where all this is going to end up. No one is certain where we’ll all be in a few days, never mind a few months or years. All that can be said for certain is that when Scotland was in the midst of its independence referendum campaign back in 2014, we were assured that it was only by remaining a part of the UK that Scotland could enjoy political stability, economic certainty, and the safety and security of a state which was a major player within the EU. We were sold a pup. Whatever happens with Brexit, Scotland needs a say on whether it wants to remain a part of this dysfunction. Then we can deliver the British nationalists who have created this sorry mess a great defeat of our own.
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