Theresa May has been humiliated twice by MPs in less than 24 hours over Brexit, prompting claims that the moment has finally arrived in which a pro-European parliament takes control over Britain’s exit from the EU.
The British prime minister’s weakness was laid bare on Tuesday evening, as MPs voted to limit the government’s tax-raising powers in the event of a no-deal Brexit — part of a parliamentary guerrilla campaign to stop the country leaving the bloc in a chaotic fashion.
On Wednesday, abetted by the Europhile Speaker John Bercow, MPs again defeated Mrs May, forcing her to come back to the Commons within three working days with a Plan B if — as expected — her Brexit deal is defeated next week.
“This is the moment parliament takes back control,” said Nicky Morgan, former Tory education secretary. But the truth may turn out to be more complicated: MPs are deeply divided on what shape Brexit should take and Mrs May still holds vital cards.
Is this a decisive moment for parliament?
Tuesday’s 303-296 vote to defeat Mrs May on a tax-raising measure was the first time a government has lost a finance bill measure in almost 40 years.
Although the government said it was only an “inconvenience”, 20 Conservative MPs, including 17 former ministers, used the vote to send a clear signal: they would do what it takes to stop a no-deal exit.
Eurosceptic MPs believe that Mr Bercow’s actions on Wednesday show he is prepared to bend the parliamentary rule book to help MPs wrest back control of the Brexit agenda from Mrs May.
Mr Bercow defied official advice to allow the amendment to force Mrs May to come back quickly to the House if she loses the vote on her Brexit deal next week. The amendment prevailed by 308 to 297. “We will not allow the clock to be run down to ‘no-deal’,” declared Tory rebel Heidi Allen.
As more than 70 per cent of MPs voted Remain in the 2016 referendum, if parliament starts to assert itself over Mrs May’s ailing executive, it could point to a “softer” Brexit, a block on a no-deal exit, a possible delay in Brexit or even a second EU referendum.
How will parliament use its power?
As Mrs May’s de facto deputy David Lidington said on Wednesday, it is all very well for parliament to vote against a “no-deal” exit, but it will soon have to decide what sort of deal it wants to replace Mrs May’s 585-page withdrawal agreement.
Parliament remains deeply divided. It seems highly likely that none of the main possible alternatives — a Norway-style close economic relationship with the EU, a second referendum or a no-deal exit — would command a Commons majority.
Cross-party discussions on a compromise alternative to Mrs May’s deal have not advanced far. So far, her agreement is the only concrete exit deal on the table: “The only way to avoid no-deal is to vote for the deal,” Mrs May told MPs.
Asked whether parliament was ready to take control of Brexit, one leading rebel MP replied gravely: “Not sure.” By Tuesday, parliament may well have rejected Mrs May’s deal and also rejected no-deal, but failed to agree on an alternative path.
What can Theresa May do to try to stay in control?
Downing Street is openly discussing the possibility, some would say the inevitability, that Mrs May’s deal is defeated on Tuesday. They say that regardless of Mr Bercow’s intervention, she intended in any case to move quickly to avoid events spiralling out of her control.
One senior government figure said Mrs May would urge Brussels to come up with a final offer, carrying some legal force, to soften the controversial Irish backstop, which is intended to prevent a hard border on the island of Ireland and which Brexiters say could trap the UK in a customs union with the EU.
She would also offer MPs a greater role in overseeing the next steps of Brexit.
Although she would have just lost perhaps the biggest House of Commons vote since the last war, Mrs May genuinely believes that her deal represents the only one that can provide a smooth exit. A second vote could follow before the end of January.
What will parliament do next?
Dominic Grieve, former Tory attorney-general, said that his successful amendment to force Mrs May to come back with her plan B within three days could itself be amended to allow MPs to debate their own alternative plans.
“The motion will be debatable and amendable so the House can express its own view,” he said. “It’s the start of an essential dialogue between parliament and the government.”
Under this scenario, MPs could test support for various Brexit plans under a series of indicative votes. “When are we going to start acting like public servants?” asked Ms Allen, a Conservative MP who has supported another referendum. “Let’s have the debate and get on with it.”
But what happens if all other Brexit options are rejected by MPs, perhaps heavily? In 2003 plans to reform the House of Lords collapsed after MPs voted down a “menu” of reform options presented to them.
If the same thing happens on Brexit, Mrs May will again remind parliament that there is only one deal standing between Britain and a Brexit cliff-edge: the withdrawal treaty she negotiated with the EU in November.