Only a fortnight after the government cobbled together a majority to back Theresa May’s Brexit deal under the condition that she secure legal changes to the Northern Irish backstop, the House of Commons voted against a motion to endorse the government’s negotiating strategy, with nearly a quarter of Conservative MPs rebelling against their own government. Although the defeat was largely symbolic, it plunged the UK in further political uncertainty, sending Theresa May back to negotiate without a mandate.
No Mandate, No Chance
Bruised but not broken, Theresa May is due to return to Brussels next week to continue her push for a revised Brexit deal. But with both sides expected to stick to their red lines, it is hard to imagine EU leaders making concessions to a prime minister whose authority appears shot. The new round of UK-EU negotiations is unlikely to yield any results beyond legal assurances on the backstop or amendments to the non-binding political declaration.
With her current strategy in disarray, Theresa May could embark on an impossible balancing act between minimising losses within her own party and bargaining with Labour. But even her previous attempt to make concessions on workers’ rights after Brexit to appease some Labour MPs was in vain, and having previously ruled out a soft Brexit, securing cross-party backing is unlikely. Ultimately, her last-ditch plan to get a deal through would see MPs face a binary choice in March: to back her deal or face a lengthy delay to Brexit. Until then, running down the clock rules the day.
May has vowed to return to the Commons by 27 February either with a revised deal, or, to ask MPs to re-consider options on how to proceed. The high noon of the months-long negotiations will likely see MPs passing Labour MP Yvette Cooper’s amendment, allowing parliament to force an extension to Article 50. Until then, the pressure on the prime minister will keep rising as ministers threaten to resign unless no deal is taken off the table. As she gradually loses her negotiating power in Westminster and Brussels, it’s still unclear how the next six weeks will unfold.