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Brexit update: Who’s lost control?

Tom Hamilton

“They’ve now stolen what’s left of Brexit”, yells the front page of today’s Daily Express, following last night’s votes in the House of Commons. A no-deal Brexit is “increasingly likely”, says the European Commission, having completed its contingency plans for the UK to crash out on 12 April. Brexit has reached a new stage: universal pessimism, where the only thing everyone seems to be able to agree on, whatever their desired outcome, is that whatever they least want to happen will probably happen. Maybe everyone can be right.

The Government was defeated last night, again, with 30 Conservative MPs rebelling including three ministers who resigned to do so. Theresa May is gradually running out of people to promote. Another former minister, Sarah Newton, who resigned nearly a fortnight ago, has still not been replaced. We are getting towards the moment when the Prime Minister might just give her her own job back as a reward for long service on the back benches.

Oliver Letwin’s amendment, which passed by 329 votes to 302, takes control of the parliamentary timetable from the Government and gives MPs the opportunity to have “indicative votes” on whether any particular form of Brexit might command the support of the Commons. There are at least three problems with this.

First: time. Theresa May spent nearly two years negotiating an exit deal with the EU and then discovered, to her apparent surprise, that most MPs didn’t like it, including many members of her own Cabinet. Now the Government has just weeks to negotiate something else, if anyone can agree on what something else should look like.

Second: there is no guarantee at all that Parliament will be capable of coalescing around an alternative plan anyway. Up until this point, all sides have chosen to put their own ideal outcome ahead of any willingness to compromise (except Theresa May, whose compromise plan is hated by the ERG on the right, for compromising too much, and Labour on the left, for not compromising with them enough).

And third: the legislature cannot direct an unwilling executive anyway – at least, not at the level of detail required for a complex international negotiation. It is relatively straightforward for the Commons to stop the Government doing something: all it has to do is vote a proposal down. But it is much more difficult – and perhaps impossible – for it to force the Prime Minister to adopt goals and red lines which she does not support, and send her off to Brussels to argue for them. After all, she’s unconvincing enough when she has to argue for propositions she does agree with.

Whatever Parliament votes for now, Theresa May has made it clear that she does not consider its decision binding on the Government. As she said yesterday, nobody would want to argue for something that contradicted the manifesto on which they stood for election. This argument would be more compelling if she had not already junked much of hers, including her plans for social care reform, new grammar schools and scrapping universal free school meals. Indeed, one of the most controversial broken pledges, the guarantee to retain the free TV licence for over-75s which might have been a good pledge if the Government had not just legislated against it weeks earlier, quite genuinely appears to have been the result of an overenthusiastic copy-paste error from the 2015 manifesto.

All of that points to the need for a new Prime Minister, willing to argue for something that the House of Commons might back. Again, that is harder than it sounds – and it doesn’t sound easy in the first place. Only a Conservative Prime Minister could command the confidence of the current House of Commons, but choosing a new one would take time and would almost certainly produce a leader who one wing or the other of the Conservative Party likes even less than they like Theresa May. There are good reasons why no UK governing party has ever held a contested all-member leadership election: it’s destabilising at the best of times, and we are not currently in the best of times.

That points to a general election instead. But calling one is not an attractive outcome for most Tories because they might very well lose it, and put Jeremy Corbyn into Downing Street; one of the few things all Conservative MPs can agree on is that this would be undesirable. While the Tories’ poll ratings have been surprisingly resilient, they are nowhere near the twenty point leads that tempted Theresa May into a catastrophic election in 2017. The Conservatives have an understanding that May will not lead them into another election, but in a snap election there is no time to choose anyone else to do it.

And in any case, an election would unavoidably take time. Even if it could create certainty in the medium term, which is by no means guaranteed, it would do so at the price of weeks of even greater uncertainty at exactly the moment when – all things being equal – we are on the verge of crashing out of Europe without a deal.

This outcome still looks like a very live possibility, not least because there is a hard deadline on any negotiation process imposed by the need for everything to be resolved in time to avoid the UK participating in European Parliament elections in June. Nobody likes European Parliament elections. But maybe there are worse things in life.