Another government defeat - but Theresa May’s determination holds fast

Last week, Theresa May took another Brexit blow when parliament defeated the government's 'next steps' motion on Brexit by 303 to 258 votes. Although the vote is non-binding and does not provoke a change in intent, it arguably leaves Mrs May's chance of securing concessions from the EU on the backstop weaker.

Since the first cancelled ‘meaningful vote’ in the House of Commons in December, the apparent delay by Theresa May in revealing the detail of Brexit has caused some to argue that the approach is designed to gain more parliamentary support for her deal. Might this method of gaining support also be a strategy of instilling a fear of the alternatives?

In January, a majority in the Commons voted for an amendment that instructed Theresa May to renegotiate the Irish backstop, the most contentious part of her deal. That provided Mrs May a platform on which to try to build more support, but since then the government has been defeated again - last week’s vote was yet another step backwards for Downing Street.

The pressure is now on for May to make progress before the next crunch Brexit vote in the House of Commons on 27 February. However, Mrs May has three key areas to win ground in before then:

First, the EU

To increase (or even just maintain) current levels of support for her deal, Theresa May needs to persuade the EU to allow further concessions on the backstop. However, two weeks on from receiving her mandate from the UK to seek these concessions, the EU does not appear to offer any sign of help.

For Mrs May to be successful in winning concessions from the EU, her most important negotiating card is that the UK is genuinely prepared to leave the EU without a deal on 29 March. Unfortunately, last week saw a number of news stories harm this. Most notably the UK’s senior Brexit negotiator Olly Robins was rumoured to have said that the PM’s Plan B is a long extension of Article 50. In addition, Brussels will argue there is still no clear consensus around what a majority in the House of Commons wants in terms of a final Brexit deal – apart from avoiding no deal.

Second, Conservative MPs

With little help from the EU in sight, Mrs May needs to keep Tory MPs on her side. Whilst the majority of her 316 Conservative MPs support her deal, enough are rebelling to prevent her deal from passing. The largest group of Conservative rebels are the ERG (European Research Group), who consider the prospect of a time-limitless backstop simply unworkable, and were responsible for the government being defeated in the Commons last week.

Whilst the hard-line Conservatives are unlikely to be fully satisfied by whatever deal Mrs May returns with on 27 February, their biggest fear is an extension to Article 50 or any other means by which the UK does not leave the EU on 29 March. Leverage with this group is, therefore, likely to be keeping the very prospect of extending article 50 on the table. 

Third, the Labour benches

Jeremy Corbyn finally agreed to talks with Downing Street last week, with the condition of a full customs union to allow formal Labour co-operation on Brexit. Assuming this will be a bridge too far for Mrs May, her next best option is likely to be to try and appeal to Labour leavers and moderates. Further reassurances over environmental protections and workers’ rights could bring additional Labour MPs on board who are seeking to avoid a no deal outcome.

The breakaway of seven MPs from the Labour Party creates a new layer of complexity. Brexit featured in their press conference, in which newly independent MP Chris Leslie spoke heavily about a People’s Vote. In order to avoid losing more of his MPs to The Independent Group, Jeremy Corbyn may finally be pressured into setting out a firm and achievable Labour alternative.

In conclusion

Despite the result of last week’s vote, Theresa May remains committed to her plan of driving her deal through parliament by keeping all options on the table. How will this shape the upcoming vote on the 27th February? The outcome will in part be determined by any further movement from either side in the next two weeks. However, without serious concessions from EU on the backstop, May continues to face an ongoing challenge to get her Brexit deal through the House of Commons. Indeed, it may well be likely that we will see a postponement of the meaningful vote.

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