Two essential skills of politicians are timing and counting. On each of the three votes on the EU Withdrawal Agreement the UK government has fallen short of expectations and further behind the game. The majority of 58 against on 29 March reflected the solidity of two small groups – six Conservative pro-Remain noes, led by Dominic Grieve, and five Labour pro-Leave yeses (up from two and three in the previous votes). Labour backbencher Gareth Snell’s amendment to give MPs a role in setting the future negotiating mandate was not selected by the Speaker, forcing Theresa May to say to little avail that she would have accepted it if it had been. Snell himself, along with three co-signatories out of six (Lisa Nandy, Melanie Onn and Ruth Smeeth), voted against. The contingent of Labour MPs coming to May’s rescue on the deal remains tiny.
The negative net balance of these two groups has proved fatal for the whips. The 28 arch-brexiteers survived the loss of their four highest-profile members, Boris Johnson, Jacob Rees-Mogg, Dominic Raab and Iain Duncan Smith. The result is roughly where the government might have hoped to be after a first vote in December. Their efforts since have been maladroit and insufficient, especially the loss of the DUP as supporters or abstainers. Perhaps misled by the passport wording ‘Her Britannic Majesty’s Secretary of State requests and requires’, they have wholly overestimated their ability to extract concessions and changes from the EU27.
May’s "locked in" Cabinet of 2 April seemed to mark her retreat from promoting and carrying-through no deal, reinforced by the backbench initiative to prevent it by law. And so she needs an extension, but all she can agree with her colleagues is an attempted reinstatement of the 22 May date that fell when the withdrawal agreement was not passed. The offer of talks to Labour has a mischief-making aspect – would Labour insist on a second referendum even if they obtain the substance of their position? Both Corbyn and May know that a forced choice between a soft Brexit and remain is toxic.
Now all focuses on the European Council on 10 April and the EU27’s offer – not made before the last meeting – to consider a long-term extension if the UK has a plan. This has been linked to the timing of the European elections. Assuming that the normal UK electoral timetable is observed and the EU27 will not tolerate the legal uncertainty arising from a member not holding elections this is a hard constraint. The EU27 assumption is contested by some, including Labour’s Shadow Foreign Secretary Emily Thornberry on 31 March. But this route to extension remains a convenient can-kicking one, as the EU27 has been sensitive about denying the UK an opportunity for a democratic event.
The indicative votes on 27 March and 1 April were something of sideshow, as all of them were compromised by high levels of abstentions (tactical or principled), including cabinet members. Support for Ken Clarke’s Customs Union, Nick Boles EEA + comprehensive customs arrangement and Peter Kyle’s confirmatory referendum was based on Labour votes with no more than 36 Conservatives. Like the May deal, the softer propositions are getting less than 45% of MP votes. Kyle’s got most votes on 1 April but 24 of his Labour colleagues were opposed and only 14 Conservatives were recruited. Boles’s and especially Clarke’s wording was imprecise and please-all, unlikely to survive serious negotiating with the EU27.
In addition to the two Brexit routes still available under article 50 (May’s deal and no-deal) there is now a coherent no-Brexit route involving European elections and an extension long enough to precipitate a Conservative leadership context and very likely a General Election. The European elections offer a process-based way forward and will only require in the vaguest terms a sense of where the UK is heading. As usual Labour will seek to acquiesce in rather than promote the Brexit-avoiding approach, a strategy that has served them well so far. The European election timetable was a fixed star on the horizon when the timing of the UK withdrawal letter was determined in spring 2017, and perhaps this very outcome was foreseen.