The most dramatic night at Westminster since the Labour government’s defeat on a confidence motion in 1979 is writing itself as a sequel to James Graham’s 2012 play This House about events forty years ago. Labour’s Tulip Siddiq, unwell, pregnant, wheelchair-bound, played a cameo role, parked next to the SNP benches during the divisions and receiving the ministrations of colleagues from all parties, in particular Leader of the House Andrea Leadsom. Outside, flag-waving demonstrators from both sides were well-behaved, as if they were actors hired by the broadcasters to enliven their coverage – and, who knows, perhaps they were.
The vote outcome is comparable to Gladstone’s defeat on his Irish Home Rule proposals in 1886, when about a hundred of his supporters rebelled. Within the conventions of the time, he then requested a general election which he lost, but his rebels continued to sit on the Liberal benches, sustaining the Conservative party most of them eventually allied to. The impossibility of the 2019 events recasting the party system - with Conservative rebels joining Labour – is one of the structural constraints in place at the moment. Despite promising in her 2017 manifesto to repeal the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011, Theresa May can now use it to detach confidence in the government from any policy defeat, however severe.
The Conservative benches split in almost precisely the same numbers (198-118, including tellers) as in the Tory confidence vote in the Prime Minister(200-117) on 12 December 2018. Again, nobody abstained, showing that usual emotions of loyalty and caution are now absent. But more significant was the total solidity of the Labour benches, with only three of their number voting with the government. This owes much to Keir Starmer’s articulation of Labour’s conference position. It is more coherent than May suggested – a permanent customs union and substantial single market alignment with negotiated easements on freedom of movement. But, as government ministers pointed out, it is something that could be negotiated during the transition period. The Withdrawal Agreement, not further negotiations in Brussels before 29 March, is the gateway to any of the softer Brexits now in play.
After the vote, May was literally reading from a script designed for a smaller, reversible defeat. The ‘senior parliamentarians’ she wishes to consult is a code for anti-Corbyn Labour backbenchers of political weight. The idea of a Brexit position capable of a Commons majority would probably include a customs union and the abandonment of an independent trade policy and all the great deals in prospect. It is hard to see that being either offered by May or accepted by Labour.
The logic of May’s views would seem to suggest a regretful admission to the EU that she cannot achieve UK ratification of their deals and so the UK will leave under article 50 on 29 March without a Withdrawal Agreement. This is a legally sound position and would open up discussions on the emergency mitigation of chaos, almost certainly involving the extension of the notice period until the end of June, after which the new European Parliament without UK members takes over. After the European Court of Justice opinion, the rescinding of the notification of withdrawal is also legally sound. Anything else is politically and legally fraught. But there is an imbalance in UK debate. Leave without a deal has its fierce open advocates in the Commons, but rescind and remain does not in the two major parties. Even Labour’s route to it – a second referendum – is compromised by the potential inclusion of a third option like May’s deal or Labour’s position. The third way lost big on 15 January, but for the moment it exercises its fascination from beyond the grave.