Daily Telegraph – 16 January 2019
The one thing Theresa May cannot say is "nothing has changed". Her Withdrawal Agreement was beaten on Tuesday night in the Commons by 432 votes to 202, the biggest defeat since at least the 1920s. Ruin for the Prime Minister's plan has in fact been predictable since the summer of last year: the stream of resignations from the Government ought to have been a clue. But Mrs May has a record of misreading the situation. She misread the voters in the 2017 election; she misread the EU; she misread her Cabinet at the Chequers summit; and it's obvious that she has dramatically misread Parliament.
The DUP were never going to vote for the deal, because it would have divided the United Kingdom. Labour would never vote for it – even though it's not a million miles from their own half-baked proposition – because when Mrs May loses, they always win. Pro-Remain Tory rebels wouldn't go for it because they are convinced that membership of the EU is better than any deal the Government could cook up. Even the Speaker was accused of doing his own bit to aid defeat by refusing to select any of the amendments the Government thought might help the agreement to pass. Finally, pro-Leave Conservatives were never going to come round because they loathe the backstop and regard Mrs May's compromise as Brexit-in-name-only. Their position was summed up eloquently by Julian Lewis MP:
“Because Brexit should mean Brexit and no deal is better than this bad deal, I shall vote no, no and no.”
At the Dispatch Box, the Prime Minister gave the honest impression that she believes this deal is the only way to do Brexit, and by investing everything in it – running down the clock and issuing wild warnings of the dangers of no deal or no Brexit – she staked her entire credibility, her ability to govern even, on the fate of the agreement. Defeat is therefore a personal humiliation, although it has been paid for by more than just No 10. The country has been trapped in limbo while waiting for the inevitable; the markets have faced uncertainty; businesses have not had a chance to plan for the future. Far from Mrs May's One Nation approach bringing the country closer together, it has driven it further apart – as shown by the colourful protests outside Parliament. Elite Remainers have felt emboldened to push for a delay or even reversal of Brexit; Brexiteers have cried betrayal. What Mrs May has fundamentally failed to grasp is that fulfilling the referendum requires a rupture with Europe, which requires picking one side and fighting its corner. Her attempt to satisfy everyone – including Brussels – has finished by satisfying no one. The scale of her defeat proves it.
Her response, clearly pre-planned, was to buy more time – although there are only days left to buy now, not months. First, she invited a vote of no confidence; Labour happily gave her that. Secondly, she said she would sit down with the other parties and come up with new ideas. Thirdly, she will go back to Brussels and put to the EU the will of Parliament. She will honour the timetable established by MPs and report on her intentions next Monday.
Neither the Tory backbenches nor the DUP would want to topple the Government, so it ought to survive today's confidence vote. But given that the Government now largely exists to see Brexit through, what really matters is the House's lack of confidence in its plan – a plan it does not yet show real willingness to compromise over. Mrs May could talk to MPs and thrash out fresh proposals, but the debate before the vote illustrated that the House is unlikely to find a consensus. Part of the problem is that one outcome – a well-managed no deal – has been almost entirely taken off the table by both MPs and the Government, even though this is actually the logical, legal position that Britain will be in after March 29. There is a serious contradiction that the Prime Minister will have to confront: she insists that Brexit must not be stopped, but also insists that a no deal be avoided. What will this mean in terms of Article 50?
Finally, Mrs May will certainly have to go to the Europeans and explain that their agreement has been rejected by Parliament. And even the EU must see that the problem is the backstop; the backstop must go and, hence, the agreement needs to be drastically reconsidered. It is not just Mrs May who has misjudged Parliament. The EU has failed to understand the essential issues of sovereignty and freedom that lay at the heart of the Brexit vote: anyone with a clearer understanding would have seen that the Commons could not back a deal that would threaten to undermine Britain's independence.
The Government must regain the confidence of the House, rethink the agreement and go to the Europeans with a united front. Whether or not Mrs May leads that effort is a decision upon which she will now have to think very hard.