Theresa May – and Britain – remain locked in Brexit purgatory
There was a time when government defeats in parliament were unusual. It was in that same bygone era when prime ministers who couldn’t reliably command a majority in the House of Commons resigned. Also in those distant days of yore, former Labour and Tory cabinet ministers did not conspire from the backbenches to seize control of parliament’s agenda. Ministers did not quit to help them. It was another epoch, all of two years ago.
The rules are different nowadays. By a margin of 27, the Commons has endorsed a plan under which MPs will grab the parliamentary steering wheel from the government. Downing Street was opposed. Alistair Burt, a Foreign Office minister, Richard Harrington, a junior in the business department, and Steve Brine, a health minister, resigned to side with the rebellion.
There has not in living memory been such a drastic requisition of power by the legislature. But, in Brexitland, the unprecedented no longer feels extraordinary.
In practice, the vote means that Wednesday’s parliamentary session will be set aside for a ballot of competing plans for future relations with the EU. These indicative votes are meant to reveal the course of action for which there might be a sustainable majority. MPs have so far been a lot better at declaring what they are against than at coalescing around something to be for.
Theresa May conceded on Monday that a third attempt to get her deal ratified currently looks pointless. That doesn’t mean she has given up hope altogether. In this new Brexit era, political time moves in mysterious ways. The clock can be ticking inexorably towards a fixed deadline only for the deadline to be moved.
May keeps facing crunch votes amid assertions that everything is about to change, yet somehow everything seems to stay the same. Conservative MPs – remainers and leavers – say they have run out of patience with their leader, that she has no authority left and that she cannot possible carry on. Then she does.
It is strange now to recall that May once intended to finalise a Brexit deal before an EU summit last September. Allowing the date of the first “meaningful vote” to slip beyond December 2018 once felt like a reckless lurch towards the cliff edge. Then everyone got strangely used to life on the brink of a precipice.
For all that MPs keep declaring their horror at a no-deal scenario, it is the default option until the moment some other legal arrangement comes into force. May appeared to rule out no deal in the Commons earlier, since parliament doesn’t want it to happen. A spokesman later clarified that this reflected only her expectation that MPs would find a method to forbid it. But in legal terms, any such method requires the prime minister’s cooperation. The Commons can insist on whatever it likes, but it still needs a head of government to take the final executive step, travel to Brussels and either plead for a longer article 50 extension or call the whole thing off.
May does not want to do either of those things but there is a certain utility for her in Tory backbenchers worrying that she is capable of it. Her latest hope (surely the last?) is that Wednesday’s indicative votes generate a critical mass of support for something that the European Research Group and the Democratic Unionist party find repellent – a flight to the Norwegian model or a second referendum. The Brexit ultras might fear losing their prize altogether. They could then decide that the surest way to kill the UK’s membership of the EU is to use the instrument closest at hand, which is May’s deal.
But this is hardly a new calculation. For months now, everyone in Westminster has been playing with the same numbers, trying to find a route to a Brexit majority and always coming up short. The arithmetic changes from day to day but the sums still never quite add up. The same objections to every variant deal are raised, the familiar arguments echo round and round the Commons chamber from one day to the next. Indicative votes might finally break the deadlock, as intended. It is always possible that something will shift at the 11th hour, perhaps in the final second of the 59th minute.
But while the clock is ticking, it feels also as if we have been in the final phase of this process for a purgatorial eternity. Logically, it must come to an end eventually. The world is still turning on its axis and the days are crossed off the calendar in the conventional order. Inside the House of Commons, politics unfolds in a mysterious Brexit twilight zone, where time races ahead yet also stands still. All the logic of an escalating national crisis dictates that things cannot possibly carry on like this, and yet somehow they do.
• Rafael Behr is a Guardian columnist