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The sheer scale of May’s latest defeat makes a Brexit delay almost inevitable

Theresa May750

British PM Theresa May.

By John Rentoul

The House of Commons has not broken its habit of voting against things, then. But, rather late in the day, the range of options facing MPs is narrowing. The scale of the defeat makes it hard for the prime minister to try to get her deal through a third time. She persuaded only 41 MPs to change their vote from the even bigger defeat in January, but she still needs 75 more MPs to change sides to get her deal through.

That means parliament is heading towards asking the EU to delay Brexit, which is, in effect, another way of not deciding, as the prime minister said rather pointedly after the vote.

She promised that there would be a vote tomorrow on whether to leave the EU without a deal. She doesn’t want that, but she is quite safe in holding that vote, as that is another option the Commons will vote against. She confirmed that she will allow her MPs a free vote, but didn’t say how she would vote. I imagine she will abstain, knowing that a no-deal Brexit will be defeated by a huge margin. Fewer than 100 of the 600 MPs in the Commons support it.

More importantly, she repeated her promise of a vote on Thursday on whether to seek an extension to the Article 50 timetable. Before the Commons votes to delay Brexit, however, there may be final attempts to secure support for a different deal.

The only substantial change to the deal that might be possible would be if the government accepted a permanent customs union. That could easily be written into the non-binding political declaration in the Brexit deal, because the details are something that would have to be negotiated after we leave the EU.

May might be tempted to accept a customs union in desperation if it were the only way out, but I cannot see how Jeremy Corbyn would ever support a Conservative prime minister, even if it meant supporting his own policy.

There is not enough support, and no time anyway, for other options such as a general election or a new prime minister.  

The only way to avoid delaying Brexit would be for the Commons to pass another version of the prime minister’s deal on a third, or possibly even a fourth attempt. It may be that the imminence of the Brexit date could force 75 MPs to reconsider. But that does not seem likely. The EU27 are even less likely to offer last-minute concessions once a no-deal Brexit has been ruled out: we may be testing their patience, but they are not scared of a Brexit delay.

So the most likely option is that the Commons will decide on Thursday to ask for an extension to the timetable. If it votes against that too, then it will have to vote repeatedly on the deal or on delay until one wins a majority – and if MPs are still unable to decide, a no-deal Brexit remains the legal default. The Commons can vote against a no-deal Brexit all it likes, but that is just an expression of opinion until it votes for something else.  

The prime minister accepted in her historic statement on 26 February that the House of Commons would decide the next stages of Brexit, even if she disagreed with it. It is unusual for a prime minister to undertake to pass laws that are contrary to her government’s policy.

But that is what she said. She promised to bring in the “necessary legislation” to change the exit date in law. Her next step is to negotiate with the EU the length and terms of the extension. Jean-Claude Juncker implied yesterday that a short extension could not run beyond 23 May, when the European parliament elections are held. A longer extension would require the UK to take part in those elections, which would be embarrassing but possible.

The scale of Tuesday’s vote tilts the country towards not leaving at all and yet, as the prime minister implied, many MPs refuse to take responsibility for what was, in effect, a decision by default.

The Independent