It’s hard to get the image out of your mind — a fish head, completely washed up, dead and rotting away. Yes, it’s Theresa May again. She’s just suffered the worst defeat of a government in the history of the House of Commons. Her negotiated EU withdrawal plan went down 432-202 votes. The previous record holder was Ramsay McDonald, PM of the first Labour government in 1924, a very minority affair, losing by 190 votes on an utterly minor issue. May has not only lost a vote on the future form of UK sovereignty, and grabbed the top spot, she’s broken the 200-vote barrier. It’s quite an anti-achievement.
Every party except the Conservatives voted against the bill, and 118 Tory rebels voted against it too. Three Labour MPs crossed the floor to vote for the agreement.
The vote went down 7.30pm UK time (early Wednesday morning here). Labour immediately announced its intention to call a vote of no-confidence, which will happen tomorrow. The government is expected to win that, with Tory rebels coming back into line, and the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) eager to avoid a general election, which would give Labour a chance of gaining a plurality.
That would leave power in the UK bifurcated. Theresa May then still leads a minority government with confidence in her ability to manage drains, whack the poor, etc, etc, but which leaves an absence of leadership on the most crucial question of all.
That is what both Remain and Leave rebels on the Tory side have desired. Both sides withdrew amendments to the bill at the last minute — the key one, to make a “no-deal” crash-out “illegal” — that would have otherwise gained more support for the bill from one side or the other. Hence the magnitude of May’s defeat. It was a pretty classic ambush.
But, really, there was nothing May could do about it. To withdraw the bill a second time (it was meant to come to the vote in December last year) would have been absurd, and triggered a no-confidence motion in any case. Though given the margin of the loss, May may well reflect that it would have been better to leave the magnitude of the defeat as a mystery.
Now, should the no-confidence motion be lost, and May does not resign, she has three days to present a “Plan B” — B? Plan ZZQ — to the Commons, the result of an amendment voted up last week. The form of that amendment is not undodgy, compelling a course of action within parliament as the result of a vote, but the speaker let it through anyway.
Technically, May could say anything — “we’re going to keep on keeping on” — but realistically she has to put something forward. Prior to the “three days” amendment, she had 21 days as per the terms of the original withdrawal act — but that would have left only seven weeks between the presentation of a new plan in early February, and Brexit proper on March 29. That would have allowed for a bit of brinksmanship.
But the “three days” amendment leaves the government scrambling to cobble together something, anything to present to the Commons — without time to check it with the EU proper to see if it would be acceptable. This is, remember, the question of the sovereignty of the country of which the Commons is the law-making, constitutive body.
The paradox is hardly coincidental. The Leave/Remain referendum was designed to solve the problems of unity within the Tory party, and allow them to continue operating as the “practical” party of ruling class governance. But by projecting their own politics onto the wider canvas of the nation, they did that most unconservative thing: politicised the allegedly non-political. Since Tory parties thrive only by removing matters from the realm of the political into the “given”, this is an extraordinary reversal.
So what can May do now? She could resign and say that someone else will have to carry a new plan forward. But reputationally, she has no incentive to do so. It couldn’t get worse. Could it? She could declare that the public will is now impossible to divine without a second referendum — attractive to her as a Remainer, and putting the split back to Labour, whose leadership is desperate to avoid such. Ask for a delay of exercising article 50 from the EU? Yes, but all 27 EU nations have to agree to that, and their patience with the preening, arrogant, UK has long since been exhausted.
My bet would be a second referendum. Given that May may lose control of the House in any case (to pro-Remain backbenchers) she may want to try and gazump them, and go down in history at least as the PM who took it back to the people. That’d be my bet. So of course it won’t be that. General election. Whatever happens, they’re up Fish Creek, totally addled.