Today should have been the day that Britain left the European Union (EU), the day Brexiteers had been dreaming of for years. The promise from Vote Leave, the official "out" campaign was that Britain would "take back control" and forge a bold new destiny as a global powerhouse, unshackled from the rules and regulations of the EU. Instead, it was parliament who decided to take back control via a series of indicative votes and it was the prime minister who promised to leave if MPs finally decided to back her deal. It has been a truly historic week in Westminster, but not for the reasons many people believed this week would be.
MPs reject all Brexit options
Brexit has produced all sorts of twists and turns since the referendum result was announced in June 2016, but the indicative vote process that took place this week was truly historic. On Monday evening, the House of Commons voted in favour of an amendment tabled by former minister Oliver Letwin. The amendment gave MPs the power to seize control of the House of Commons timetable on Wednesday and hold a series of votes on a range of Brexit options, from a no-deal to revocation of Article 50. Three government ministers (Alistair Burt, Steve Brine and Richard Harrington) resigned in order to support the amendment, which ended up passing with a majority of 27.
Whilst giving MPs a vote on a range of Brexit options may seem like a sensible option given that the prime minister's deal has already been rejected twice, nothing can change the fact that parliament is still hopelessly divided and unable to coalesce around any Brexit option. In fact on Wednesday night, every single option presented to MPs was rejected. This means that the prime minister's deal, no deal, no Brexit and every single version of Brexit has now been rejected by MPs. "Jobbing PM" Oliver Letwin has now proposed a second round of votes on Monday featuring only the options that attracted the most support from MPs on Wednesday, such as a second referendum or a permanent UK wide customs union. What may prove crucial in the second round of indicative votes however, is the position the government takes. In the first round, cabinet ministers were whipped to abstain, with only junior ministers being allowed a free vote. If the withdrawal agreement is rejected for a third time today, might the prime minister be forced into allowing the cabinet to indicate their preferences too? It seems unlikely that May would want to let this happen, but with the breakdown in collective responsibility being as it is, would cabinet members, especially those with leadership ambitions really want to resist the chance to cast decisive votes in the second round? After all, it may prove very handy in a future Conservative leadership election to be seen to be doing everything within your power to avoid a soft Brexit, something that is very unpopular amongst rank and file conservative party members.
Back me then sack me!
Whilst MPs were attempting, and failing, to make some process on indicative votes, the prime minister had an announcement of her own to make. In an address to the 1922 committee, the prime minister stated she would resign as party leader and trigger a leadership election if MPs were to pass her withdrawal agreement. The immediate response to this news was that a number of Conservatives were now sufficiently reassured that the PM would not seek to negotiate the second phase of Brexit, and would now back the deal. One such MP was Boris Johnson, who after months of deriding the deal, quickly announced his support; a move that led many to wonder just what it was about a potential leadership vacancy that was so appealing to the ever so ambitious former foreign secretary...
Unfortunately for Theresa May, even the offer of her resignation was not enough to convince the most hard-line of the European Research Group (ERG) or the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) to back her deal. Without the support of these crucial MPs, the prime minister's only hope of passing her deal seems to be getting the support of 30-40 Labour MPs who represent leave voting northern constituencies. The problem with this strategy is that whilst Labour MPs are far from being Theresa May's biggest fans, the idea of a hard brexiteer in the mould of Dominic Raab or Boris Johnson taking charge of the next stage of Brexit is even more unpalatable to them. The incentive for these MPs to vote for the withdrawal agreement has therefore evaporated, and it seems the Brexit deal is no closer to passing despite a frantic week in Westminster.