May staggers on after three defeats

Theresa May © Getty images
May: a very bad day at the office

As the vote on the Brexit deal nears, victory for the PM is looking unlikely. What then? Emily Hohler reports.

The likelihood of a “final say referendum” has increased, just days before Parliament is expected to reject Theresa May’s Brexit plan in a crunch vote on 11 December, says Joe Watts in The Independent. On Tuesday, MPs backed a plan to give the Commons more power to dictate what happens if May’s deal is “ditched”. A few hours earlier, the European Court of Justice signalled it was “set to rule that the UK could unilaterally revoke Article 50 – killing off Brexit – if it wanted to”.

In a further blow to May, her government, which lost three consecutive votes on Tuesday, was found in contempt of Parliament for its failure to publish legal advice on the proposed Brexit deal.

What’s Plan B?

The move to assert Parliament’s power over a Brexit plan B was led by the pro-EU Dominic Grieve, and supported by 26 rebel Tory MPs who joined forces with Labour and other opposition parties. MPs voted 321 to 299 against the government. If May loses next week’s vote, she has 21 days to come up with a new plan, over which MPs will now have more influence, says the BBC.

One “silver lining” for May is that she can now “more easily argue to eurosceptic MPs that they risk derailing Brexit altogether if they vote against her deal”, say Henry Mance, George Parker, and Jim Pickard in the Financial Times. As it stands, Sky News reports that only 178 MPs have publicly said that they will vote in favour, while 409 have said they will oppose it. Even if the undeclared 52 all backed the government, it would still be defeated by 92 votes.

If that happens, Labour looks “certain to propose a no-confidence vote in the government within 24 hours”, says Pantheon Macroeconomics. However, it seems “unlikely the government will fall”. More probable is that Brexiteer Tory and DUP MPs, “fearful of another general election and losing influence”, will “rally behind it”.

The opposition will then focus on its secondary aim: a second referendum. The other option, given that the majority of MPs oppose the EU leaving without a deal, is the Norway-plus option, says James Blitz in the Financial Times. May has “expressly” ruled it out because it would not end freedom of movement, but a number of cabinet ministers could “throw their weight” behind this solution, which would leave the UK in the single market and customs union.

Surely the only argument worth having, given what we now know about Brexit that we didn’t know in 2016, is “should we still do it?”, says Rafael Behr in The Guardian. The rest is distraction. May’s deal isn’t “uniquely, freakishly deleterious to the national interest. It is just Brexit.” And if any Brexiteer Tory MPs are expecting May to obtain last-minute concessions from Brussels, they are mistaken, adds James Kirkup in The Spectator.

The EU has consistently demonstrated it is “extremely limited in its willingness to accommodate British political arguments”. The gun is already loaded, cocked, and set to go off on 29 March. The only decision that remains is “which way it’s pointing when the trigger is pulled”.

Whatever happens, “turmoil is more or less guaranteed”, with one outcome being a general election as early as January, says Ross Clark in The Spectator. This raises the real possibility of a Jeremy Corbyn government, and this is what is really spooking investors. At the Labour conference, he warned that the richest were “on borrowed time”; John McDonnell has talked repeatedly of a wealth tax. All eyes are on Westminster, “but behind the scenes serious preparations are going on for what could turn out to be a far bigger drama: Corbyn and McDonnell in power”.