Writing just three hours after Theresa May suffered the worst Commons defeat in modern British political history, I’m not entirely sure what should, or will, happen next.
One thing is clear: Britain cannot crash out of the European Union without a deal. Nor can Parliament renege on Brexit. Tonight, Theresa May got one thing right: to go back on the biggest democratic decision in UK political history would be an outright betrayal of the British people.
No matter how imperfect it may be, an improved deal with cross-party appeal must be concocted in order to minimise the shock of our rapidly approaching departure. Disruptive Brexiteer backbenchers, the true architects of this mess, should be reminded that no withdrawal agreement will be perfect, that they will have to give way on the question of the Northern Ireland backstop if they are to make sure Brexit takes place at all. Even the Prime Minister, so frustratingly wedded to her disastrous handiwork, has repeatedly admitted that her deal was far from perfect.
There were certainly big question marks over May’s deal, but Labour cannot vote down a revised agreement on purely party-political grounds. Perhaps it would be different if we had months or years left until exit day. We have ten weeks left, and No Deal looks more likely by the day.
Extending the Article 50 negotiation period is an option and would provide a little wiggle room for Theresa May (or her successor) when it comes to the question of the backstop. Yet it also raises the problem of Britain’s continued membership of the EU until the new deadline and would be a boon to campaigners for a ‘People’s Vote’. Parliament must focus, however it can, on achieving the smoothest Brexit possible in the circumstances. Let’s face it, a whole new referendum campaign will only get in the way.
In the long term, there is little doubt that this government’s days are numbered. But should Britain go to the polls again in the next few weeks – whether in a general election or any kind of second referendum – it would only offer more instability and uncertainty, distracting from the real issue at hand.
Admittedly, tomorrow’s confidence motion tabled by Jeremy Corbyn will probably come to nothing – we think. In fact, the Prime Minister could use her position to the government’s advantage. She knows that both Conservative and DUP MPs, even those who voted against her efforts, dread the thought of handing Corbyn the keys to 10 Downing Street. In the eyes of many Brexiteers, a Corbyn government might only increase the risk of a second referendum, or of a Brexit even more watered down than Theresa May’s.
It is astonishing that after everything the government has been through, the Prime Minister still managed to one-up the Leader of the Opposition. Responding to the cataclysm, she was cool, prepared, stony-faced. She’s had weeks to draft her response to the defeat. Now, in theory, she can return to Brussels brandishing the results of the vote as evidence for the universal hatred of the deal. That is the best we can hope for, if we want to avoid desperately stockpiling food and medicine over the coming weeks.
Make no mistake, Theresa May’s authority has entirely collapsed. Her dogged, at times admirable, determination has descended into a fundamental entrapment in an impossible situation. This is no longer a question of Conservative politics, or of the Prime Minister’s job security. Britain is entering uncharted waters, the air of constitutional crisis hanging over Westminster tonight.
This government is doomed, wrecked, consigned to infamy. Nevertheless, there’s no time for resignations, leadership contests, elections or referendums.
Now it’s about damage control – and time’s running out.