Has there been a Brexit disaster? It depends on your point of view. When John Bercow ruled that the Prime Minister could not bring the same deal back for a third vote, there were a great number of MPs who seemed delighted. But they were at opposite ends of the Brexit debate. Needless to say, they can’t all be right.
Dominic Grieve, who longs for a second referendum, welcomed the decision — thinking that the panic, and the government’s inability to answer the question, would mean the decision being thrown back to the public. Bill Cash, one of the longest-standing Eurosceptics, also seemed pleased — appearing to calculate that Britain is set to leave the EU on Friday next week unless parliament votes for something different. And if parliament is paralysed, might that mean no deal being celebrated as early as next weekend?
Later, Brexiteers could be heard whistling the theme tune to The Great Escape in the members’ tearoom. When Michel Barnier followed up the Bercow announcement, saying there would need to be a ‘new event or new political process’ to justify agreeing to grant a Brexit extension, both sides seemed happier still — believing they were finally getting closer to their desired Brexit outcome. Remainers are delighted with the idea that Barnier would push for a softer Brexit. Brexiteers are convinced they could block that in parliament.
So once again, parliament is in tribes. The first cheerful faction is the so-called People’s Vote campaign for a second referendum. If anything, this collective would like Brussels to permit a longer extension period — up to two years — and ideally one with a caveat of a second public vote attached. At present, there aren’t the numbers in parliament to bring about a second referendum but these MPs believe that with time more colleagues will come around to the idea as the only way to break the parliamentary logjam.
Also spying an opportunity in May’s misfortune are the Norway-plus lobby, who are pushing for a softer Brexit. This group of MPs — which includes Robert Halfon, Nick Boles, Stephen Kinnock and Lucy Powell — want the UK to leave the EU but remain in the single market and a customs arrangement with the EU. Many of the Tories in this group voted for May’s deal — but they are losing patience and as they do so, they lean towards their own preferred outcome. These MPs argue that if there is a majority for any form of Brexit in the Commons it is a softer one. They hope to use the indicative votes that the government has promised to hold to prove this.
Boosting their cause is the fact that Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn is leaning towards the idea. The disadvantage is that Theresa May doesn’t want to go near it as it would force her to cross her own personal red line: free movement.
Yet there are some Brexiteers who still find reason to rejoice in the current paralysis. Around 20 Conservative MPs from the European Research Group of Eurosceptic backbenchers think that if May fails to pass her deal, a no-deal Brexit will follow. This is because the legal default is still that the UK leaves — with or without a deal.
‘These MPs can say they don’t like no deal all they want, they still need to agree on something to replace it,’ explains a relaxed Brexiteer.
In a bid to stop a delay to Brexit, a number of the group are said to have tried to persuade EU leaders to veto any extension. Should May succeed in winning a short Article 50 extension, this group believes it will lead to no breakthrough — they would simply need to sit tight and no deal will happen in a few months’ time.
These three groups might well be right that May’s deal is dead — but only one can be right about what happens after that.
Now listen to Katy Balls in conversation with James Forsyth and former Universities minister Sam Gyimah on Brexit: