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Theresa May loses big over her Brexit deal

ON JANUARY 15th Britain’s prime minister, Theresa May, lost the parliamentary vote on her Brexit deal by the huge margin of 230 votes, the largest-ever defeat for a ruling party. Some 118 Tory MPs seem to have defied their party whip to oppose the deal, one of the biggest-ever such rebellions. Coming after five days of debate during which Tory backbenchers repeatedly said they would vote down the deal, the result was not a surprise. But the margin of defeat was. It leaves Mrs May with precious little time to decide what to do next.

Her first challenge will be easy enough: to defeat the no-confidence motion proposed by Jeremy Corbyn, the opposition Labour leader. Since no Tory or Northern Irish MPs want an early election, they will support the prime minister.

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After that, things will only get harder. Following her defeat, Mrs May promised to consult MPs on possible changes to make her Brexit deal more palatable. She would then hope to go back to Brussels to get legal changes. The European Union is, after all, familiar with countries’ difficulties in ratifying treaties. Add a few tweaks and declarations, offer some concessions—and invite the country concerned to vote again.

The trouble is that such a course is far harder this time round. The scale of Mrs May’s Commons defeat will make EU leaders think that, even if they were to garnish the Brexit deal with new words of comfort, it would still be defeated in Westminster. They are also adamant that they cannot make legally substantive changes to the much-disliked Irish “backstop”, which guarantees that there will be no hard border in Ireland by, if necessary, keeping the entire United Kingdom in a customs union with the EU. To set an end-date for the backstop or to allow Britain a unilateral right of exit from it would undermine the scheme’s very purpose of acting as an insurance policy.

If alterations to improve the current deal do not work, what else might? Different factions of MPs have different answers. Mr Corbyn demands a general election that he will not get. He also wants Britain to stay permanently in a customs union, but that would dismay Tory MPs and make it impossible to pursue comprehensive trade deals with third countries. Other groups of MPs favour a closer relationship with the EU like Norway’s. Still others want a more distant one like Canada’s. But with only ten weeks left before Brexit is due to happen on March 29th, negotiating an entirely new deal will be all but impossible. And, as Mrs May herself keeps pointing out, for any alternative arrangement the EU would still insist on an Irish backstop as a guarantee against a hard border.

Mrs May has only three working days before she has to return to the Commons with a new motion setting out her plan for Brexit. MPs will be allowed to amend that motion. Some will push for a second referendum. Others are hoping to take charge of the Brexit process themselves. But both the complexity of negotiating in Brussels and the clock are against them. The risk is that Britain could leave the EU with no deal at all, wreaking maximum damage on the economy. Mrs May said that she was firmly against that idea. So perhaps the likeliest outcome of all after the Commons vote will be a request to the EU for more time. Although that requires the unanimous agreement of all 27 other EU governments, which may be tricky, it can at least be done quickly.

Further reading: Extending Article 50 may mean Britain must elect MEPs again