After the historically huge defeat for Theresa May’s Brexit plan in the House of Commons two weeks ago, anything short of a repetition on Tuesday night would have felt like a victory.
In the end the latest round of voting ended with the Prime Minister’s preferred Plan B — go back to the EU to renegotiate the terms of the withdrawal agreement — winning the approval of lawmakers. It was a clear victory, but any sense of triumph in Downing Street will be short-lived.
The ball is now in the EU’s court, but in fact all the major players in the Brexit saga are being asked major questions about what to do next. Ultimately, what Tuesday night demonstrated is that a no deal Brexit is more likely than ever.
The immediate response of EU leaders was to dismiss any suggestion that the withdrawal agreement, reached with the UK way back in November, could be reopened.
To them, there was no question that the Northern Ireland backstop, the measure that Britain’s parliament has just voted to weaken, would be altered. They fear any change would damage the future of Ireland, which will continue to be a valued EU member after Brexit.
Yet such a rapid response will only fuel the suspicions of Conservative party Brexiteers that Brussels is being obstructive. As justifiable as the backstop is, EU leaders — as keen as many UK lawmakers to avoid a no deal scenario — should do whatever they can to make a Brexit deal possible even if it involves more concessions.
The second group which must now calculate future moves are the Conservative Brexiteers, the biggest winners of Tuesday night. After trying and failing to oust May in a confidence vote last month, these lawmakers, led by Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg, now find themselves in the driving seat.
They rallied round an amendment by Tory colleague Sir Graham Brady to force the government to seek “alternative arrangements” to the backstop, delivering an effective instruction to reopen negotiations which only days ago May had insisted were closed.
The PM has tailored her entire Brexit strategy to suit the Conservative right and the question now is what they will do with their new-found power. After scenting victory, will they push for tougher Brexit measures or even the clean break with Brussels that many of them want? Or will they go too far and risk what they see as the worst-case scenario: No Brexit at all?
The third faction in parliament, lawmakers from all parties who want a softer Brexit and seek to block a no deal, also tasted some success. In a significant message, they secured the passage of an amendment which opposes a no deal Brexit.
Yet this was a qualified success. The amendment is not binding and unlikely to influence May’s next moves since she has a history of ignoring inconvenient parliamentary initiatives, Amendments which would have given a legal basis to moves to block a no deal were defeated.
Lawmakers who support a soft Brexit or no Brexit are about to enter talks with the PM on how no deal can be averted. But this doesn’t make the scenario any more improbable — given that there are just 58 days to the March 29 departure date, no deal is more likely than ever.
The final group pondering a way forward are May and her ministers. They have been given two clear instructions from the Commons: Do everything possible to avoid no deal, while also asking Brussels to renegotiate the withdrawal agreement. The inherent contradiction in these two instructions means the stalemate is likely to continue. But what is the Prime Minister’s next move?
It emerged on Tuesday evening, while lawmakers were debating the amendments, that European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker had telephoned May at lunchtime to tell her the withdrawal agreement was not up for renegotiation — before she told the Commons she would throw the government’s weight behind the Brady amendment seeking a change to the backstop.
This revelation left the PM looking overly tactical instead of being seen as acting in the national interest. So knowing how hostile Brussels is to reopening the agreement, does she keep running down the clock to March 29th in the hope that lawmakers will eventually back her deal?
Or does she turn away from her Brexiteer Tories and step up talks with opposition MPs, including Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn? After Tuesday’s vote it may have seemed like the PM was closer to getting Brexit over the line — but in reality it remains as challenging and complicated as ever.