Theresa May found another way to lose a vote in parliament over Brexit on Thursday.
A “neutral” government motion, designed to do no more than note what is happening and play for time, was defeated by the votes of 303 MPs to 258. Nearly a quarter of Tory MPs did not support the government—67 abstained, and five voted against.
It was the government’s eighth defeat on votes linked to Brexit in the Commons. It has no immediate legal consequences, but is another shattering humiliation for May.
The Financial Times newspaper commented, "Theresa May departed the House of Commons on Thursday after her latest Brexit defeat with a face set in a rictus of fury. 'I’ve never seen her so angry,' said one Conservative MP. A minister summed up the mood succinctly—'Utter shambles.'"
Unusually May was not in the Commons to hear the result announced.
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said, “The government cannot keep ignoring parliament. Tonight’s vote shows there is no majority for supporting the prime minister’s course of action on Brexit. Her strategy has failed.”
But he did not move a motion of no confidence in the government.
May lost because she once again alienated significant sections of her own party.
On 29 January May tacked towards the “hard Brexit” Tories by agreeing to renegotiate the Irish backstop. This time she tried to accommodate the “soft Brexit” Tories who are utterly opposed to a no-deal Brexit.
Government by zig zag underlines May’s terrible weakness—and it didn’t work.
The government motion, intended to sound neutral, said negotiations with the European Union to come to a compromise on the backstop are continuing and “reiterates its support for the approach to leaving the EU expressed by this house on 29 January 2019”.
But the motions passed on 29 January not only told May to return to the EU to modify the backstop but also said MPs were against a no-deal Brexit.
Although this wasn’t a binding commitment, the reiteration of the position on Thursday was too much for some of the Tory European Research Group (ERG). This is the “hard Brexit” group associated with figures such as Jacob Rees-Mogg and Bill Cash.
Just before the votes, the ERG met and decided to abstain.
On one level the vote changes nothing. But it does undermine May’s attempt to prove to the EU that a reworked Brexit deal could secure the support of MPs. She isn’t in control.
The Tories have no certain way forward.
The clock is ticking towards 29 March when Britain is supposed to leave the EU. Big business is screaming that there must be a deal or no Brexit.
After the vote Carolyn Fairbairn, director-general of the bosses' CBI business lobby group, tweeted, “Another day of failed politics, another day closer to no-deal chaos. Politicians must find a deal that protects our economy. Failure would be unforgivable.”
But the EU won’t make the concessions that May needs to unite her party.
However, Labour is also hugely divided. The voices calling for a second referendum are growing louder, coupled with threats to split if Labour doesn’t adopt this policy.
Labour MP Neil Coyle tweeted, “Members leaving in their thousands over Brexit. Councillors quitting. MPs will leave.”
And he and others are allowed to get away with it.
The options of a “soft”, “hard” or “no-deal” Brexit are false choices for working class people. They will all be bad deals so long as they are based on Tory politics of austerity and racism that help the super-rich and shaft working class people.
The left should put forward an anti-austerity, anti-racist vision of Brexit that rejects the neoliberal single market and defends freedom of movement.
The Labour Party and trade union leaders aren’t taking advantage of the Tory crisis by calling strikes or protests. And this has left working class people feeling frustrated and like spectators.
The best way to break the deadlock is to step up resistance on the streets, workplaces and campuses to drive out May and all the Tories.