Brexit chaos in the Commons: what just happened?

What has been decided?

Parliament has said the government should rule out the idea of a no-deal Brexit not just on 29 March, but ever, after a backbench amendment was passed.

What votes took place?

The government tabled a motion ruling out no deal on 29 March, but two amendments to this were allowed by the Speaker, John Bercow. The first was an amendment tabled by Tory backbencher Caroline Spelman and several other MPs to say a no-deal Brexit should never happen. This was passed. MPs then voted on the other amendment, the “Malthouse compromise”, and rejected it. This left a final vote on the original motion, as amended by the Spelman changes. This passed.

So does this rule out no deal for ever?

No. The government could theoretically ignore the motion, as it is not binding or legislation. However, this would cause political chaos, and seems unlikely. But – as Theresa May stressed after the votes – ruling out no deal is not in the government’s gift. The only way for this to happen is for a deal to be agreed, for Brexit to be cancelled, or for an extension to article 50 to be agreed to allow more time.

What of the Malthouse compromise?

It was defeated pretty overwhelmingly, by 374 votes to 164. The plan – a sort of managed no deal, with a transition period but no withdrawal agreement – was popular with a small-ish number of Conservative MPs, but its premise had been repeatedly and resoundingly rejected by the EU. This should be the last we hear of it.

What was the government’s plan?

It depends on what time of the day you asked. Conservative MPs had been promised a free vote on the main motion, and May told the Commons she would vote in favour of it. But when the Spelman amendment changed the motion, the order came that Tory MPs should oppose it. This was ignored by 17 MPs who backed it, including Sarah Newton, the junior pensions minister, who then resigned. Four ministers abstained – Amber Rudd, David Gauke, Greg Clarke and David Mundell.

What will happen to the ministers who abstained?

In any other political circumstance they would be expected to resign after defying the three-line whip. But now? Only time will tell.

What has this done to May’s authority?

Shredded it still further. She did not want to hold the vote in the first place, but was forced to under parliamentary pressure. Offering a free vote on the no-deal motion exposed her weakness still further, while deciding in a panic to then oppose the amended motion, and losing, is the stuff of prime ministerial nightmares.

Didn’t Spelman want to pull her amendment?

Yes, she did, because of party pressure. But the Speaker ruled she alone could not do this, and if other MPs who had signed the amendment wanted it voted on this should happen. The Labour MP and signatory Yvette Cooper moved it. Spelman thus won a vote she wanted to lose, making her the anti-May.

What happens next?

Who knows? Genuinely. On Thursday MPs will debate and vote on another government motion, to seek an extension to article 50 – the motion says this should not go beyond 30 June. Every side of the debate will press their claims again, from Labour’s customs union plan to a second referendum or a soft Brexit.

Could May’s plan return for a third time?

Possibly. Conservative Brexiters and the Democratic Unionist party could be tempted into backing it by revised legal advice on the Northern Irish backstop. If May thinks she could, finally, win a majority she might well try again.


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