Predicting what is going to happen with Brexit is a mug’s game. There are at least half a dozen paths to making Brexit happen and a few more to stop it happening.
So, let’s try a different tack and look at Brexit through the eyes of Theresa May. I think things get a lot clearer. Theresa May was a Remainer early on in the referendum campaign, stating that she felt Brexit would be an economically disastrous option. However, as it became clear that Cameron wasn’t going to win at a canter, she disappeared from the Remain campaign, sensing an opportunity to become PM. Brexit then became a means to her political ends rather than something she was opposing for the good of the nation.
May not only wanted to replace Cameron but also be seen as the PM that settled the Europe question and stopped the UK from committing political/economic suicide, therefore holding the UK together and leaving the Conservative party in a position to win a majority at the next general election. That would be a powerful legacy. To be fair, she probably thought it would be far easier to forge a consensus within her own party about the specifics of Brexit, and get the EU to agree to this, than it has been.
Don’t feel sorry for her though. She wanted this and all her actions are aimed at delivering that legacy. So, she needs to maintain control of the Brexit process and that is what is under threat in tonight’s Brexit vote.
Since the failure of the Chequers plan, May has known that getting a Brexit agreement a majority of MPs could support was impossible. She also knew there were massive difficulties either undermining the Good Friday agreement by creating a hard border on the isle of Ireland or undermining the Act of Union and having a hard border between actual UK nations.
In December last year she faced a leadership challenge and won. Still she showed no sign of embarrassment because she knew winning that vote was one of the stages she had to go through. So much so that several of the letters calling for the vote of no confidence in her leadership of the party were sent in by her own supporters because, having won confidence in her leadership, she knew she can’t be challenged again for twelve months.
Then consider the fact that she challenged Jeremy Corbyn to lodge a motion of no confidence and stated that, if he didn’t, she would go to the other opposition parties and accept their motions. She knew that having secured her party’s leadership for a year, the hard Brexit rebels and the DUP had no choice but to back her Government rather than face a general election.
After the defeat of her deal, the confidence votes were necessary steps to achieving her goals and settling her legacy.
Last night Parliament tried to wrestle control from her and failed. Fifteen amendments were put forward to the Brexit Bill, although most had zero chance of success. Some were bizarre, such as Labour MP Stella Creasy’s amendment suggesting the government postpone Brexit day for an unspecified period to give the public more say through the creation of a 250-member “Citizens’ Assembly”. Imagine being called up for Brexit jury duty!
However, the important one was Labour MP Yvette Cooper’s amendment that effectively required the UK Government rule out a no deal Brexit. It planned to do that by introducing a new law requiring the Government to extend article 50 until 31 December 2019, if May does not get her deal approved by 26 February.
I highlighted requires and requiring in the above paragraph because, unlike the amendments which actually did pass and can’t bind the UK Government, this would have required a law being passed and so take control of the Brexit process out of May’s hands. It was defeated by 23 votes, mostly as Labour MPs didn’t follow their parties orders and support it.
The failure of the Cooper amendment effectively gives Theresa May a big club (no deal) to beat MPs with when the clock runs down and also gives May a threat to help her unlock the EU negotiations (however unlikely). May also needs no deal on the table because her fall-back plan, if forced into a second referendum, is to have no deal versus her deal on the ticket and not a remain option.
Sir Graham Brady’s amendment was passed which requires the Government to seek a legally binding alternative to the Northern Ireland backstop. Therasa May backed this and now she has a mandate to go back to the EU and negotiate the unnegotiable. She will lose and the headlines will say she was humiliated but remember her end goal is to get her deal through and this amendment helps run down the clock till its her deal or no deal.
So May has gotten her way and kept no deal on the table, she maintained control of the Brexit process and will keep re-submitting versions of her deal with minor tweaks until the clock runs out. Then, she expects to win. If she is wrong, we will start running out of food and medicines five days after a hard Brexit, or Brexit will be cancelled.
No Brexit seems like a good option then, but it would create a political civil war in Westminster, split the Tories and Labour and possibly even the SNP as some will say the latter helped to undermine its own mandate for an independence referendum. Then, having stayed in the EU with no allies or friends, the UK’s influence would be negligible, and the EU would start taking away the additional benefits the UK enjoys such as the membership rebate – I mean what could the UK do, threaten to leave?
Right now Brexit with a deal that looks very much like Therasa May’s is now the most likley outcome. The Brady amendment was, afterall, a majority vote for Brexit with a deal.