So, now we know that:
(a) a sizable proportion of Tory MPs have no confidence in Theresa May as leader of their own Party; but they all have confidence in the government she leads; and that
(b) a similar proportion of Tory MPs have no faith in the practical outcome of the major, political project of our time, which has utterly consumed government for the last two years and in spite of all the other social and economic issues which desperately need to be addressed; but they all have confidence in the government itself.
Yesterday’s vote was astonishing not in the defeat of Theresa May’s deal itself, which was entirely predictable, but in the manner and scale of it. A loss by 230 votes was not only a parliamentary ‘record’ for a government (to add to that which May already has – time will look on her as leader of the government in a way about as friendly as it already has of her immediate predecessor: Theresa ‘strong and stable’ May compared to David ‘chaos with Ed Miliband‘ Cameron). It also, by one reckoning, attracted the support of fewer than 50 MPs not on the ‘payroll’ (i.e. with government jobs and who are mandated to vote for something the government supports, or else resign). For a policy issue on which a three-line whip was imposed on Tory MPs, this is astonishing. And, three of those who did vote in favour were Labour MPs (alongside three more sitting as independents). And, finally, the 196 Tory votes she did get – the 202 votes in favour minus these six – were actually three fewer Tory MPs than voted for her in the first round of the Tory leadership contest in 2016.
Yet not, apparently, a matter for the resignation of May herself. Now, after the loss of the vote of confidence by 19 votes tonight (the DUP of course has 10 MPs), we know that the government cannot be compelled to resign, it’s time for a People’s Vote (yes, Brenda from Bristol, another one).
This necessarily needs to follow an application to the EU to extend the Article 50 withdrawal process specifically to encompass a further consultation with the UK public and would need a majority of MPs to vote in favour, perhaps as one of the four ‘indicative options’ for which the Exiting the EU Committee called today. (It’s also worth noting that Dominic Grieve has also submitted his Second Referendum bill.) Not a ‘re-run of the 2016 vote’, not a ‘second chance to get it right’, not ‘the elite overturning the will of the people’ though some will clearly choose to spin it in any or all of these ways – but a referendum based on the practical issues which now confront us in early 2019, not those which applied back in 2016. Divisive it may be thought to be – but this country is already deeply divided under the Tories and the likely out-turn of a Tory Brexit is a deepening of those divisions.
A People’s Vote – among other options following the failure of this evening’s vote of confidence – is Labour conference policy on Brexit, and it is also clearly the policy of others, such as the SNP, but it now appears to be the only viable one that can provide a solution to the chaos which has engulfed government. Furthermore, given that, otherwise, we will crash out of the EU on 29 March by simple operation of the law, there is no time for a war of attrition based on repeated, confidence-sapping votes of confidence, no matter how legitimate such a tactic would be in more normal circumstances. There is an absolute deadline here – which is also written in the EU Withdrawal Act – which will dump us out of the EU automatically on that date, regardless of the politics, unless we do something about it.
We don’t yet know what May will bring back to parliament on Monday – the end of the three working days she is permitted by virtue of the efforts, again, of Dominic Grieve – but the early signs of her being willing to consult within parliament do not look good from the perspective of ensuring a Brexit that parliament could support. She seems to be standing by her infamous ‘red lines’, for example on a customs union and an independent trade policy, which have trapped her as a natural consequence into making this deal – the only one that could be signed, as we know from Michel Barnier’s very clear slide – as well as by a refusal to seek an extension of the Article 50 process. To say nothing of effective environmental protections and workers’ rights, as opposed to mere forms of words. Quite what a process of consultation means when – at least earlier on today – it apparently doesn’t involve the leader of the opposition – or any other otherwise sympathetic (on this issue) Labour MPs, it seems – is anyone’s guess. But as we also know, claiming to be listening is her go-to statement in times of defeat. To anyone else, it’s more can-kicking. Objectively, she’d be better off losing certain cabinet ministers than retaining these red lines at this point in the Brexit process – and, if the cross-party talks announced tonight are to have any meaning, those red lines, and the possibility of a no-deal Brexit, will have to go. Perhaps that is the purpose of the statement due at No. 10 shortly.
It would, at almost literally any point in the last two years, have been possible to construct a Brexit deal which would have gained the support of parliament and which could have implemented the 2016 referendum vote had May chosen to consult widely and construct a Brexit policy, on the softest possible basis, which not only MPs could have supported but which also reflected the narrowness of the 2016 vote itself. Even dyed-in-the-wool remainers like myself would, if not capable of actually supporting it, at least acknowledge it as being required to implement the referendum decision. Furthermore, this is what the UK public voted for in the 2017 snap election, by taking away May’s parliamentary majority and handing her instead a minority government (though, clearly, we didn’t know we were getting the DUP). The loss of the parliamentary majority was, by the way, evidence that our democracy does work. The people voted in 2016 voted for Brexit but with a substantial element of ‘remain’; and they voted in 2017 for consensus. At this late stage, they are getting, instead, it seems, a hard Brexit to appease the hard-liners in the Tories’ own ranks; and a political approach to Brexit governed by party dogma inspired by winner-take-allism and Tory infighting.
As Keir Starmer said last week, no consultation has ever taken place (£) within parliament – at least, not until tonight and, so far, only partially. We have, in its place, May’s red lines substantially based on her own interpretation of the 2016 vote and which have led us, inexorably and ridiculously, to this point. Without those red lines, a different deal would have been possible. It could yet be, were we to call a halt to the process and seek – via a general election – a pause in the political process in which to construct a different approach to Brexit to take to the UK people in search of their support. But, at this point, with no apparent way either of compelling May to abandon her red lines, or her government to quit, and if the talks starting from tonight turn out to be as fruitless as I imagine them to be simply because of May’s own intransigence and the continuing splits within the Tory Party, a People’s Vote is the only way out of this ‘shambles’. At this eleventh hour, there is no time left to explore a new deal based on parliamentary consensus around the art of the possible – which should have been done after the 2017 election – and a series of different red lines (were May so inclined to agree, and her fundamentally split Cabinet to agree as well).
Meanwhile, the catastrophe that a ‘no deal’ Brexit would represent is still a possible outcome, given our current position, and given that it is essentially the default should nothing else be done by 29 March. Whatever May is about to announce tonight, it needs to be at the very least that she will seek an extension to the Article 50 process. Even after a People’s Vote, by the way, there would still need to be a general election not least since the existing parliament, with party manifestos drawn up and MPs elected largely on the basis of implementing the 2016 referendum mandate, would clearly at that point have little further authority.
But we have now a political impasse, and a major deadline looming; and unless these cross-party talks are able to pull a rabbit out of the hat which also unites the Cabinet and the DUP, it is only right that we look now to the people to take us out of it via the only means available now that a timely general election is, apparently, not going to happen.