A member of the Cabinet uttered just one word to me about this latest humiliating defeat for the Prime Minister about her Brexit deal: “nightmare!”.
Let’s put this nightmare into context. In January, the Prime Minister’s painstakingly negotiated Brexit plan was rejected by a record 230 votes, the worst defeat for a government ever. Tonight’s defeat by 149 votes is also huge by all measures. And let’s be clear, these are not defeats about rules and regulations for ice cream vans. They relate to the most important economic, security and foreign policy decision this country has taken for many decades. This is therefore without precedent in modern times as a diplomatic and political failure for a Prime Minister.
It is all the more extraordinary that this rejection of her deal leaves all of us in the soupiest fog about the what, the how and even the whether of Brexit, just 17 days before we are supposed to be leaving. How on earth can any of us run our lives, businesses, finances given these uncertainties? Madness, surely?
Yet, the PM shows not a hint that she takes the responsibility for such a failure in the time honoured and traditional way, namely by offering her resignation. In fact without a hint of embarrassment she just announced that she’ll tomorrow do something that just a few weeks ago would have been unthinkable and a contravention of central government policy, namely to set in train a process that should remove the threat (or in the view of some Brexiters, the opportunity) of a no-deal Brexit on the scheduled date of 29 March. Because she has just confirmed she will lay a motion asking MPs whether we should leave the EU without a deal on that date, knowing full well a majority of MPs will vote against that. She’s also gone a further step in abandoning the Government policy that no deal should remain the default option, by offering the Conservative Party a free vote on tomorrow’s motion.
This means that a bunch of ministers who’ve been publicly campaigning to take no deal off the table – led by Clark, Rudd and Gauke – in what many have seen as a grotesque breach of normal rules of ministerial collective responsibility, can now vote with their consciences and keep their jobs. Which will make it all the harder for the terrible divisions in the Tory Party between the Brexiters and Remainers ever to be healed, since Brexiter Tory ministers felt obliged to quit when they wanted to campaign against the PM’s Brexit approach.
Where next? Although MPs will vote against an imminent no-deal Brexit, they cannot cancel the risk of leaving without a deal completely – because that decision is actually the EU’s, not ours, unless as a nation we choose to revoke for all time our choice to leave the European Union.
So, to bore on again, my central projection remains a no-deal Brexit at the end of May or in June – largely because EU governments are sick to the back teeth of not knowing what kind of Brexit or no-Brexit the UK actually wants.
Robert Peston is ITV’s Political Editor. This article originally appeared on his Facebook page.
Now listen to Katy Balls and James Forsyth’s analysis from the Commons: