By Tim Stanley
Telegraph Online – 16 January 2019
I’m not sure why Remainers cheered the defeat of Theresa May’s Withdrawal Agreement. For all its faults, it offered a departure from the EU with a deal the EU has actually agreed to. Now it’s been hammered, there is nothing else on the table. As of right here, right now – the morning after – the UK is legally on course to leave the EU on March 29. Without a deal.
This could be stopped, perhaps it will, but Remainers have left an awful lot to chance. Today there will be a vote of confidence in the Government. Given that the DUP has affirmed its support for Mrs May, the Government will probably win, which means it remains in power for the foreseeable future. What will it do? Outright revocation (cancelling Article 50) would be political suicide. A second referendum requires primary legislation and Mrs May’s government will never back that. It could delay Article 50, although this requires the agreement of the EU27 – and the Europeans will ask, "for what purpose are we delaying"? EU leaders have already said the Agreement is not up for renegotiation, and we are a long way from knowing what Parliament wants.
The PM has said she will sit down with MPs to thrash out some new consensus. But she also implied that she regards her Agreement as the only deal that works and that any other deal with the EU would need to contain the dreaded backstop as well. What will Labour ask for that’s different? Watching Tuesday's debate, it was striking how similar Labour’s plan is to the Government’s – except that it’s both worse and less practicable. Jeremy Corbyn wants a permanent backstop where Mrs May only wants a temporary one. Let’s say she agrees to that, or to a Norway-plus-customs-union model (highly unlikely because it will presumably contain free movement). Don’t both ideas require the EU to reopen negotiations? Will it agree? And does a majority even exist in Parliament for a permanent customs union arrangement?
I’m "just asking questions": all of this could change rapidly in the next few days. But the jubilation of Remainers outside Parliament implied that they believe they’ve taken charge of this process. I'm not so sure. At present it is – counter-intuitively – the Government (i.e. the executive) that’s still in the driving seat. It’s up to Mrs May to delay Article 50 or support a second referendum or take anything new to the EU. And it's up to her to confront the nation's most painful dilemma: she says a deal is better than no deal and that no deal must be avoided at all costs, but there isn’t an agreed deal, ergo no deal is the default. One conclusion – and I'm happy to be corrected – is that while MPs can grind the Government down with amendments, the Article 50 clock will keep ticking.
My suspicion is that some hard-Brexiteers are counting on Remainers and the Government being unable to agree a plan and time just ... running out. Why else would they risk no Brexit by voting against Mrs May’s deal? In Tuesday's speech, Julian Lewis MP said:
"Because Brexit should mean Brexit and no deal is better than this bad deal, I shall vote no, no, and no."
It got a laugh, but now I think about it, his equation contains a ring of unnerving confidence. What does he know, or think he knows, that the Remainers don’t?
As for Mrs May, her permanence is remarkable. The lady won’t be removed from office: she'll have to be exorcised.