Brexit vote
UK Prime Minister Theresa May (Image: House of Commons/PA Wire)

The UK is back on the edge of crisis, as all options for action on Brexit have once again been rejected by the House of Commons.

In another paper ballot, “indicative” vote, all four options selected by the Speaker to go forward were rejected.

They were all, as was noted by the right, “Remain” or soft Brexit options: Tory Ken Clarke’s “permanent customs union”, Tory Nick Boles’ “Common Market 2.0” (customs union + single market), a cross-party push for a “confirmatory” second referendum, and a delay of triggering the Article 50 withdrawal.

The customs union proposal came closest, losing by only 3 votes, 273-276. The second referendum came in at 280-292, Common Market 2.0 went down 261-282, and delaying Article 50 failed badly at 191-292.

The votes remained largely party political. With the cabinet abstaining, the bulk of the Tories — save for a small pro-EU group — voted against all four. Labour was whipped to support a permanent customs union, and largely came behind the other three. The Scottish National Party, insistent on a second referendum, abstained from the customs union, which killed it, and of course the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) voted against everything.

The hour after the vote was a thing to behold, as the House of Commons, the so-called “mother of parliaments” (it’s not), tried to work out what to do next, on the floor, in real time.

It was proposed that by combining the second referendum proposal with customs union that a majority might be sought; Ken Clarke argued this would drive away votes from getting the customs union over the line.

Nick Boles, mover of Common Market 2.0, stood up, and on the verge of tears, announced that he had spent months trying to create a deal that would honour the referendum result. He said he had tried to gain a majority but that he had failed because of his own party and therefore he was quitting. Then he literally crossed the floor to the cross-benches as dismayed colleagues were heard to say “oh Nick, come on, don’t”.

During the day, a naked group of protesters calling themselves “Extinction Rebellion” tried to superglue their butts to the perspex barrier at the front of the public gallery. It’s a measure of where we’re at that this wasn’t the most interesting thing that happened in the UK parliament today.

So what happens now? Tomorrow, Theresa May — the PM, sitting through the aftermath tonight, like a bystander — has an inner cabinet and a full cabinet meeting to see if there is any chance of presenting her truncated withdrawal bill for a fourth time.

Most likely, the “government”, if such an entity still exists, was presuming that one or both of the “customs union”, and “second confirmatory referendum” votes would get up. The prospect of an endlessly deferred or even cancelled withdrawal, would scare the 30 Tory Brexit hold-outs (now known as the “Spartans”) back to May’s withdrawal agreement.

The DUP would always reject it, but 25-30 Tories, plus another five Labour votes (to add to the five who voted for May’s deal), would be enough to narrowly reverse last week’s 58 vote loss.

May’s cabinet itself teeters on the verge of collapse. The no-dealers within it would quit if May tried to further soften the withdrawal; if she plumps for a no-deal, another half-dozen Remainers would go.

The most bizarre things are now being spoken of, such as May wielding the nuclear option of an election by deliberately losing a confidence vote, kicking off a process to a general election.

What the Commons votes on on Wednesday now depends on Tory free-agent Oliver Letwin, who kicked off the whole takeover business, and has control of several hours of debate time; and the speaker of course, the office having regained an authority it lost more than a century ago.

And the conditions for an April 12 crash-out have been met; no alternative plan. That is now 11 days away.

No, 10. Midnight just ticked over in the UK.

Guy Rundle is reporting from London this week on the Brexit chaos. Read more of his coverage here.

Peter Fray

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