The 45-vote defeat that Britain’s Prime Minister suffered on Thursday shall not rock Whitehall’s applecart just yet; yet there is no mistaking that the vote is bathed in symbolism. The Government has lost another vote because of sharp divisions within the Conservative party. With just six weeks to go for Brexit to materialise, the jolt has been as stunning as it is embarrassing. It has above all exposed the bankruptcy of Theresa May’s Brexit strategy; equally has the setback reinforced the need for an all-party consensus.
To quit the European Union is much too momentous an event to be left to the devices of a single party that has seldom been so fractious. Yes, the people have spoken three years ago, but the affirmative vote in the referendum (23 June 2016) is much too brittle. The British body politic is convulsing and the idea that another referendum would heal divisions may be pie in the sky. Such divisions, on the contrary, may become deeper and still more insoluble.
It is imperative, therefore, to change the terms and conditions of Brexit even at this late hour. And the task must of necessity be carried out by MPs of all parties. Other than to vote, Mrs May didn’t even attend Thursday’s session. She appears to have been prescient enough to anticipate the outcome. The possibility of another round of negotiations with European leaders is slender; fresh talks are even less likely after this latest defeat. It is as yet uncertain whether Tory fanatics will back the Prime Minister. Parliament is increasingly at risk of “just drifting” into yielding negative outcomes that are bound to affect lives in all parts of the country. Proceedings in the House of Commons have been both misguided and unavailing.
Parliament has faced certain options ever since the Leave vote in 2016 and since the November deal in Brussels. The legislature can no longer allow itself to be complicit in Mrs May’s strategy of selective accountability.
It may now be too late for the Brexit process to be salvaged by the passing of mere motions, even when they cross party lines. The time has come for Parliament to endorse the all-party plan and to use legislation to take back control of the Brexit process ~ and extend Article 50 ~ from Mrs May’s Toryfocused approach. Three years constitute a longenough time-frame in constitutional history, long enough to reaffirm that the Prime Minister’s approach has failed.
Britain is inching towards a no-deal outcome based on destructive perceptions. The principal issues of contestation, pre-eminently the Customs Union and Ireland, remain unsettled. There has been a turmoil of ideas in recent months; the time has come to forge a new consensus to save the country and also, of course, the European Union. Which is not to be confused with the geographical expression called Europe.