In democratic politics, the most important skill is the ability to count. Roughly, but adequately for our purposes, the division in the Commons as revealed in recent voting is along these lines
May’s Deal 200
Labour’s “Permanent Customs Union” Brexit 141
No Deal Brexit 120
So, if we wish to avoid no deal Brexit we can discount the following options.
A Second Referendum: the political will and (probably) time is missing for this. The hurdles of legitimacy, form and political exhaustion rule this out. The PeoplesVote campaign have done well to keep this on the table as long as it has been.
“Revoke and Reconsider”: if a referendum is impossible, the numbers who would support revocation without one are very small. Most MPs do want to deliver the result of the referendum.
Norway +: although there might be a cross Parliamentary majority for this option, it needs a government that will negotiate it. No such government is in prospect even if there were a General Election.
A “Permanent Customs Union”: the actual difference between the government’s version of Brexit and what Labour is calling for is, when examined closely, almost insignificant. The real division between the parties is: who gets to negotiate the future relationship. On this the government and opposition are, inevitably, irreconcilable. There is no deal that May could offer the Labour leadership to obtain their support for any version of Brexit.
May’s Deal?: here we enter the realm of uncertainty. The government loss by 230 votes was very large, much larger than I expected. The coalition against it is however obviously unstable, including Remainers such as Mary Creagh and Caroline Lucas, and no deal Brexiteers such as Jacob Rees-Mogg and John Redwood. If come the end of March the options are still no deal v May’s deal, in a rational world May’s deal should win. But, the scale of her defeat makes this a dangerous gamble.
Where there is deadlock, what matters is the default. Currently that is no deal Brexit. Even though supported by only around 120 MPs it has far greater prospect for success than other better supported options.
So, easily the most vital thing to do is change the default.
The government cannot rule out no deal Brexit, that requires legislation. Further as a matter of Parliamentary tactics it may wish not to do so as the only way of applying pressure to obtain more support is to leave no deal Brexit as the default.
However, unlike all other options, there should be a majority in Parliament for an amendment to the European Union (Withdrawal) Act along these lines.
X. Duty to revoke notification of withdrawal from the EU
(1) If Y days before exit day no approval of the outcome of negotiations with the EU has occurred in conformity with section 13 of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018, the Prime Minister shall notify the European Council of the United Kingdom’s revocation of its intention to withdraw from the European Union under Article 50(2) of the Treaty on the European Union.
(2) Upon such notification, the sections of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018 specified in schedule Z shall be repealed
1 For the purpose of section X(2), the relevant sections are [all of them except 13].
This would make Remain the default result. This should obtain the support of all those who favour a Labour led Brexit, a referendum, and May’s deal over no deal Brexit. It enables all those who favour the only Withdrawal Agreement there will ever be to say “I backed the government’s deal to achieve that” whilst avoiding a no deal Brexit.
It seems very unlikely that any amendment along these lines will be tabled by the government or the leader of the opposition. It is therefore vital that backbench MPs such as Nick Boles, Dominic Grieve and Yvette Cooper back such an amendment. It is our last, and best, hope.
[Please spread, this needs to be generally understood.]