After the chaotic scenes of last night’s Commons votes on whether to rule out no deal we take a look at what happened, what it means and what might happen next.

What happened last night?

  • The government tabled a motion that would allow the Commons to express its opposition to a no deal scenario while still noting that no deal remains the legal default if an alternative agreement isn’t reached.
  • However, they narrowly lost a vote on an amendment that strengthened the motion’s opposition to no deal, stating the House rejected this outcome in any circumstances. The government therefore whipped their MPs to oppose their own motion at the last minute (as it had now been amended) and also lost that vote with a number of Ministers, including four Cabinet Ministers abstaining.
  • None of the abstaining Ministers have had to resign amid confusion as to whether a No 10 aide (reportedly Gavin Barwell) indicated that they would be allowed to abstain. This has ignited a fierce row in the Conservative Party and sparked fury among Brexiteers.
  • Following the defeat Theresa May, rightly, noted that this vote did not change the legal position and that no deal remains the legal default unless an alternative agreement is secured. She also stated that MPs now had six days to pass her deal or face the likelihood of a very long extension to Article 50.

What does this mean?

  • The legal position is unchanged but this vote demonstrated a clear desire from MPs to avoid no deal. It also strongly indicates that MPs are likely to therefore vote in favour of requesting and extension to Article 50 later today.
  • If you accept the logic of the Commons rejecting a no deal under any circumstance, it theoretically means that if a deal cannot be achieved and it is not possible to secure Article 50 extension then the choice should be between May’s deal and revoking Article 50 / holding a second referendum. However, that does not necessarily mean that MPs would actually be willing to vote in favour of either of those outcomes either if faced with them directly.
  • There are serious questions hanging over the ability of No 10 and the whips office to enforce discipline in the Conservative ranks. That could make their job even more difficult in navigating the votes due later today on requesting an Article 50 extension.

What happens next?

  • Later today the Commons will vote on whether to instruct the government to request an extension to Article 50. Theresa May is presenting this as a choice between voting for her deal in a third meaningful vote and requesting a short extension to get the relevant legislation passed, or having to request a much longer extension of a year or more with the implication that this would need to be accompanied by a shift to a much softer Brexit or possibly a second referendum.
  • There are likely to be several amendments tabled to this motion with some still coming in this morning. We won’t know which amendments have been selected until shortly before the debate begins around midday. It is possible that amendments calling for, or ruling out, a second referendum will be tabled and give the Commons an opportunity to express a view on this point.
  • Following today’s votes it is now expected that Theresa May will bring back her deal for yet another meaningful vote, probably early next week, in the hope that the threat of a long extension and further ‘clarification’ of Geoffrey Cox’s legal advice will be enough to win over the ERG and DUP.
  • If her deal fails again, all eyes will turn to the European Council summit next Thursday and Friday when EU leaders are expected to consider and respond to any UK request for an Article 50 extension.
  • It is conceivable that May could even have a fourth attempt at securing backing for her deal following the European Council summit, when the choices will finally be laid out with crystal clarity.

Where does this leave us?

  • The key factors that are now in play are:
    • How clear a view will Parliament be able to express about its preferred approach to delaying Article 50 in today’s votes?
    • Will EU leaders grant an extension, for what period and on what conditions?
    • Will the prospect of a delayed, softer Brexit be enough to scare the ERG into voting for May’s deal as the lesser of two evils, either early next week or even after the European Council summit?
    • Will Geoffrey Cox’s ‘clarification’ to his legal advice cut any mustard with the DUP and wavering Conservative Brexiteers?
    • Will the Labour leadership, under any circumstances, ever come good on its pledge to back a second referendum if they cannot secure their preferred Brexit or an election?
  • There appears every possibility this process could go right down to the wire in the last week of March. Only at that point, after an extension to Article 50 is sought and the conditions attached known, will all the various Brexit factions be acting in the full knowledge of the choices they face.