Theresa May has lost again in the House of Commons. It is not the first time, and it will probably not be the last, says Patrick Maxwell.
The defeat of the Prime Minister’s Brexit deal tonight by 149 votes is yet another chapter in the ongoing Brexit saga, one which May has been, despite many other menacing forces, a key player. Her ability to persevere may have won her little friends in Westminster, but it has served her well in the face of growing pressure to resign from her Cabinet colleagues. Although her MPs cannot issue a vote of no-confidence in her before December, the mounting pressure may force her into leaving before the battle is over.
All of the pressure over the Tory leadership does of course leave the prospect of a deal being reached in the new months ever more improbable. The vote over the next few days will determine whether an extension will be sought, but the exit date cannot be brought back further than June without a huge Tory rebellion, and that would mean that a deal does need to be approved at some point. With May in power, any hope of a substantial change to the backstop is surely futile. The fact that Whitehall has not yet grasped is that the numbers will never end in her favour.
This all means that the race for the Tory throne inevitably heats up. As always with the ‘natural party of government’, there are many contenders. Boris Johnson, Sajid Javid, Esther McVey, Liz Truss and Jeremy Hunt have all been polishing their credentials over the last months, and it has been reported that some have already been producing campaign literature. Any contest before the exit day would need to be swift, and there is no sign that any of the players have the sufficient support of either the party membership or the wider electorate.
Brexit has been portrayed and treated as such a binary issue that there was never much initial hope that any compromise deal could pass the Commons. Ultimately, many MPs are putting personal pressure over the consequences of their votes. I have heard that Charlie Elphicke had told friends that he planned to vote against the deal, in a quest to become chums with the upper echelons of the ERG, before coming back with a different opinion soon after. This dilemma must be one facing the large part of the Tory Party, but reality may have to kick in soon. The free vote tomorrow on no-deal will also be a political problem for many to face up to.
Having delayed the first Meaningful Vote back in January and lost it by a huge margin, tonight’s defeat must surely have to be a wake-up call to those in No10. There is no obvious solution under May that will please her own party or those in Brussels. Coming in as a Prime Minister with the sole mission of creating and passing a Brexit deal, May has rejected her domestic agenda in favour of her failed project. The time is surely up.
Brexit has always been about the Tory Party, and very little else. As a lifelong Tory member, Theresa May will ultimately always put her party unity over the best solution for the country. Most of the negotiations have been conducted in the tea rooms and over the WhatsApp group of Westminster rather than in Brussels. Despite this, the divisions are so deeply entrenched that there is no sign that there is any hope of any progress. The issue of Europe will continue to divide the party, despite a new leader, and therefore no solution will ever materialise, despite the forlorn hopes of many a leader to prove the opposite. This does not mean that a deal could not be reached from the side of the benches, but that will mean betrayal for Theresa May. Both an Article 50 extension or a no-deal scenario would create a split on par with that of the split within the same party when Robert Peel decided to repeal the Corn Laws. The deal can only be accepted if there is a Tory Party still intact, and it is increasingly looking as though neither of them will survive this grievous episode.