LONDON: The gasps reverberated around the Commons chamber. Rarely can an event so widely predicted have caused so much shock. The scale of Theresa May’s defeat is simply breathtaking.
This is the largest ever defeat for a government on a major piece of legislation. Less than a third of parliament supported Mrs May’s Brexit deal. In a normal era she would already have announced her resignation.
The defeat went beyond even the most lurid predictions. Most MPs expected a margin of 100 to 200 votes. Mrs May was defeated by 230 votes.
It is a monumental humiliation, a staggering repudiation of all the prime minister has worked to achieve, and an utter collapse of her entire strategy of trying to threaten both sides of the debate at the same time.
And yet on Wednesday she will defend her government against a vote of no confidence tabled by Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour leader, and argue that she is still the best person to carry forward Brexit negotiations which at the moment end in 10 weeks’ time.
Assuming — as most MPs believe — that Mrs May can see off the Corbyn confidence motion, the UK will be left with a prime minister who cannot be removed but cannot manage the most vital issue of the day.
SOFTER BREXIT OR NO BREXIT MORE LIKELY
The fear will be that Britain is now careering towards a no-deal Brexit, but in fact Tuesday night’s vote may yet prove the high-water mark for the Brexit hardliners. Having thrashed Mrs May’s plan they must now watch her reach out towards Remainers.
A softer Brexit or even no Brexit at all, now looks more likely than the no-deal they crave.
In the immediate aftermath of the vote, Mrs May struck a conciliatory tone, offering to reach out across the party divides to “senior parliamentarians” to find a plan which commands majority support.
It seemed as if even she now accepted that her deal was dead. At last MPs might coalesce around a softer Brexit, perhaps the permanent customs union.
And yet when one listened to the more detailed explanations of the prime minister’s official spokesman, this sounded a rather more limited consultation. He would not say that those senior parliamentarians would include the leader of the opposition or the heads of any other parties bar the Democratic Unionists on whom the government depends for a majority.
It looks more likely to be independently minded Labour MPs than the leadership.
Furthermore her spokesman stressed that she still remains committed to an independent trade policy — a position which would preclude a permanent customs union.
Also any new plan had to be workable, with her as the arbiter of that decision. Contrary to her tone in parliament Mrs May’s new flexibility looks like an effort to play for time while keeping control of the process.
If it is, it seems doubtful that this can hold, not least because there are a number of Remain-minded ministers who backed Mrs May out of loyalty who will now feel freed to pursue a different line. Reaching out to Remainers could also lead to more cabinet resignations, a prospect she will not welcome.
IN LIMBO BUT CLOSER TO A SOFTER BREXIT
She is committed to returning to parliament on Monday with her new proposals. Dare even she come back with what is essentially her own modified plan? There are backbench motions which would give MPs the power to take this process away from the prime minister if MPs suspect bad faith on her part.
Mrs May had been holding on to a promise of one more concession from Brussels. Had the vote been closer, it might have done the job, but it is now hard to see how anything less than a legal safeguard against the hated Irish backstop will sway enough of her own side or the DUP to save her deal as it stands now.
The most plausible alternative outcome now — given Mr Corbyn’s antipathy to a second referendum — may be a UK vote to remain in a permanent customs union.
The Norway Plus option of customs union and single market membership will also be tested. Even these however, will still require a withdrawal agreement remarkably like the one Mrs May negotiated including the backstop.
Any of these steps will require that Brexit is delayed. Until now the ticking clock has been Mrs May’s ally, but it is hard to see how an extension to Article 50 can now be avoided.
For the moment, however the UK is left in limbo. A softer Brexit may seem closer but the journey there is not going to be any more comfortable.
© 2019 The Financial Times Ltd.