In the past twenty-four hours, four cabinet ministers defied a three-line whip and are still in office, the prime minister was defeated, again, on her Brexit deal, and Parliament ruled out no deal. This evening Parliament votes on whether or not to extend the article 50 deadline. In short, the government is in chaos.
As Theresa May croaked out a plea for support she knew she was not going to get, it was clear that she was not in control. She was then forced to whip against her bill because it was amended to rule out no deal in any circumstances. The Scottish Secretary, David Mundell, The Lord Chancellor, David Gauke, the Work and Pensions Secretary, Amber Rudd, and the Business Secretary, Greg Clark, all abstained. For four cabinet ministers to be able to abstain on a three-line whip and not be forced to resign is unheard of. It defies the very logic of collective responsibility of the payroll vote that the British Government depends upon to govern. But, then again, its unheard of for the House of Commons to have to vote on the same bill twice, rejecting May’s withdrawal agreement twice in a row. Any other Prime Minister would have resigned by now. But these are not ordinary times.
The House of Commons does not want to accept May’s deal, but it does not want to force the country into no deal either. This evening the House votes on whether or not to extend the article 50 deadline. All this stands to achieve is to give Theresa May more time to force her deal through the house. It changes nothing. The EU will not change the deal, and May’s deal is the only deal available. The alternative is to revoke article 50 and not leave the European Union at all, but that is not politically viable without a second referendum.
The problem is there is tension between representative government vested in the Commons, and the so-called “will of the people” found in the referendum. The failure to define reasonable expectations for what Brexit would mean and May’s lack of a majority means that getting Brexit through Parliament is very difficult indeed. There is no coherent vision of what Brexit should be that can be ratified and fulfil the leave campaigns many promises. Furthermore, now that the Prime Minister has lost the ability to demand the confidence of the house and her cabinet, her task is even harder. No MP from the opposition benches is going to risk their reputation supporting such a toxic withdrawal agreement unless they are reasonably sure it will pass.
In the meantime, delivering on the referendum result is becoming harder and harder. At some point, a decision will have to be made to either endorse no deal, endorse the governments deal, or to reverse the Brexit process. Currently, all three of these options are politically untenable, but the commons has to decide, perhaps with the assistance of a second referendum. And decide it must.