Although the defeat for Theresa May’s Brexit deal was widely expected, one of this magnitude – the biggest government defeat ever in a parliamentary vote – was a surprise. Such a defeat – on the government’s flagship policy – is of enormous significance.
Morally, it should signal the end of this government – something that would be have been taken has read before the Fixed Term Parliament Act; but this is now far from certain. The subsequent Vote of No Confidence showed that the Tory rebels – including those who only last month voted to try to oust the PM – were willing to get behind her to avoid a general election. So were the ten DUP MPs who keep this minority Conservative government afloat. Despite detesting her Brexit deal, they all voted with rank hypocrisy to keep May in place.
But as newsworthy and unpredictable as the situation in Westminster is, it must not be forgotten that the implications of the current deadlock over Brexit is having a profoundly damaging impact on the ordinary people of the UK, including the three million EU27 citizens living here. While there is no clarity over what will happen in just ten weeks’ time there is a growing risk to people’s jobs, their families, their businesses – and possibly their lives if there are shortages in medicines as a result of the country defaulting into a no-deal Brexit.
Clearly, a majority in Parliament wants to avoid a no-deal Brexit, but having just thrown out the only deal on the table, what can they do? There are logically just two other possibilities: finding an Alternative Deal or Stopping Brexit.
An Alternative Deal requires quickly finding a broad consensus in Parliament to back something workable and acceptable to the other 27 EU countries. Not likely in the current configuration of Parliament, but in principle possible if there is a general election in which Labour wins a comfortable majority and finds a consensus behind such an Alternative. Not easy.
But if there is no Alternative Deal, then the only way to avoid disaster is to stop Brexit itself. Legally easy, but politically it requires a referendum.
There is not yet a parliamentary majority for a second referendum, and some MPs argue strongly against it. But if there is no majority for any other option, a referendum becomes increasingly more likely to be seen as the only way out of an impasse.
Indeed, not having a new referendum is beginning to look undemocratic. It is tantamount to saying to voters that they had their say 3 years ago, so must now shut up. Even though Brexit is turning out to be very different from what they were promised, the electorate must lump it. That is surely not tenable!