With Oliver Letwin’s amendment passing, MPs will seize control of the order paper on Wednesday afternoon to hold indicative votes. These votes will come before any third vote on May’s deal.
The not-so-secret hope of many in government is that they might help the withdrawal agreement get over the line. Theory one is that they’ll show that the majority in the Commons is for a softer Brexit, and so push some reluctant ERGers into the government column. Some ministers also hope that the DUP will not be keen to go for an early election at this moment; and will be more inclined to compromise if they think that the government will go back to the country rather than accept a customs union. Theory two is that the indicative votes will show that no option is anywhere near getting majority support, enabling May to argue that her deal remains the best way of delivering the certainty of an orderly exit.
But all these face-saving arguments can’t cover-up how embarrassing tonight’s defeat is for the government. This administration is steadily losing the qualities that have defined British governments in the modern era: collective responsibility, control of the order paper and the like. It is a mark of the government’s predicament that it counts as good news that three ministers resigned to vote against the government tonight, rather than just doing so anyway and betting that May was too weak to sack them.