Theresa May has suffered a resounding defeat over her Brexit deal in the House of Commons. Most political commentators had seen this coming; its defeat certainly had a sense of inevitability about it all. May’s botched deal has been rightly criticised by, not only members of the opposition but also many MP’s from her own party. So just why has her deal proved so unpopular?
May’s first big mistake was insisting on leaving the Customs Union; effectively leaving herself hamstrung from the start. Seen as an essential component of any deal by hard Brexiteers, the decision to leave the Customs Union generated the Irish border problem which put her at odds with the very Party (DUP) who are there to support her up. There has been no real progress made in resolving the border dispute, and absurd claims from Senior Tory MP’s like Jacob Rees Mogg (claiming that the failure of May’s deal would be the fault of the “obdurate” Irish government and their threat of a “phantom” border issue) has only weaken May’s coalition with the DUP who oppose the controversial backstop and had vowed to vote against her should Northern Ireland be treated any differently to the rest of the United Kingdom.
Ironically, it is fair to say that, given her strict red lines, May had negotiated the best deal possible; curbing free movement and safeguarding peace in Northern Ireland. Unfortunately for May, however, Brextremists still seem to believe that a better deal is possible; seemingly believing that the Irish border issue will just disappear. In essence, May’s deal was doomed to fail given the incompatibility of her aims to avoid a hard border in Ireland and leave the Customs Union. Even with her controversial backstop plan, this issue remains unsolved.
May cannot, however, shoulder all the blame for this defeat. The many competing factions in the Tory party have made her job near enough impossible. The Tories are divided; no one Brexit deal will satisfy a majority of the Party. On the one hand, you have the hard-line Brexiteers who fear May’s deal renders the UK an EU rule taker. On the other hand, you have Remain voting MP’s who are keen for a Norway style Brexit; retaining access to the EU’s common market. These two positions are inherently incompatible. May’s job gets even more difficult when you consider the rise of MP’s like Anna Soubry campaigning for a People’s Vote. There is no unity in the Tory party. In fact, the only time we have seen the Conservatives united in any way shape or form was in condemnation of May’s “half-way house” deal.
Tory infighting has severely damaged May’s credibility in her Brexit negotiations. The wave of ministerial resignations in response to May’s deal have hugely hindered her ability to negotiate with the EU; who are understandably wary of negotiating with someone who can’t even command a majority in her own party. After facing a Vote of No Confidence from her own MP’s, it became apparently clear that May could not be trusted to negotiate a Brexit deal which best served the interest of the whole country; given she couldn’t even present one which had the support of her own party.
However, rather than working hard tirelessly to secure significant concessions from the EU and win over MP’s in regards to the controversial backstop issue; May instead opted to engage in Project Fear, trying to force her deal through Parliament by ramping up preparations for a no-deal. It had always seemed likely that May lacked confidence in her own deal; having already postponed the Meaningful Vote once. However, resorting to brinkmanship was a huge display of cowardice; one which hardly inspired confidence that her deal was the best for Britain.
Ultimately, MP’s called May’s bluff. Threats of a no-deal have united the House against her; more than 200 MP’s want her to unequivocally rule out a no-deal and the Cooper amendment (to restrict government tax powers unless a no deal is taken off the table) resulted in the first defeat for any government on a Finance Bill in 41 years with 20 MP’s voting against May.
As much as May’s failure was one of her own making, much credit must also be given to Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party who have been a constant thorn in May’s side throughout the Brexit process. By tabling amendments which have limited the possibility of a no deal, as well as having secured a Meaningful Vote on Mays deal in the first place; Labour has played a huge role in upholding the sovereignty of Parliament in the Brexit process.
Jeremy Corbyn’s Brexit strategy has been something of a political masterstroke. By leaving all options on the table, pledging to call a general election and renegotiate with the EU; as well as entertaining the possibility of a Peoples Vote should they fail to call an election, Corbyn has refused to make Tories the party of Brexit. Barry Gardiner even suggested giving the public a final say on any Labour withdrawal agreement, cleverly promising both to negotiate a better deal (appealing to those who voted for Labour in 2017 on the promise that they would deliver Brexit) while also promising the public a real say on Brexit.
Ultimately however, the failure of May’s deal was inevitable given the how polarised the country has become since the Brexit vote. There is no consensus on what the will of the country actually is. While Boris Johnson may claim that the country voted to leave the EU without a deal, many polls have shown a significant swing back in favour of remain.
The Leave Campaign sold a dream it could not fulfil. Brexit was sold as a means of taking back control. May’s deal renders us an EU rule taker. Brexiteers promised that leaving the EU would be easy and that there would be no need for a transition period. This myth has since been dispelled. May faced an impossible task in negotiating a good deal under these circumstances. Delivering on the promises of a bunch of deluded Brexiteers who used lies and deceit to attract voters was never going to be politically achievable.