It was quite the evening in the House of Commons last night. Theresa May was stepping up to debate her Brexit deal with the House – meaning, she had to stand in the middle and hear from all sides how bad most MPs think it is, something she’s signed up to do for four more days – yet before that had even happened, she had lost three votes already. Two involving the government not releasing the legal advice on Brexit (the second vote causing the House to hold the government in contempt, something that has never happened before in all of British history) and one that has a huge bearing on what happens if – and it increasingly looks like when – May’s deal fails to get the backing of the Commons.
The Grieve amendment, back for a second go since it was voted against by Grieve himself during the Withdrawal Bill reading, passed this time 321 to 299. It means that the House now has procedures through which it can decide what happens if there’s no deal in a substantive way. It becomes much, much harder for the government to stop that now that this amendment has passed. With it, some clarity spins into view. Some Remainers have rejoiced thinking that this means a second referendum could be on the cards. But I’m really not so sure when you look at things more closely.
No deal almost certainly won’t happen now, unless by some monumental screw up. But what is much more likely than a People’s Vote is Norway Plus. Think about it: there are way more Tories who will vote for this over another referendum. That isn’t actually the crucial bit, however (if push came to shove, a lot of the Norway Plus Tories would vote for another referendum if it was that or no deal) – what makes Norway Plus much more likely is what the Labour Party does, and more notably, the leader of the opposition’s actions.
Corbyn doesn’t want a second referendum. Let me put it another way: he’d go way out of his way to avoid one taking place. The reason is obvious: Labour would be put in a very difficult position, and no one more so than him, a life long Brexiteer. He would be forced to half-heartedly campaign for Remain, while McDonnell and Starmer both outflanked him on the topic. Win or lose, Corbyn comes out of it a diminished figure. With Norway Plus, he gets Brexit without any further hassle to himself. He will probably figure that with Brexit settled, politics can go back to “normal” and he can talk again about austerity and all that; more importantly for him, Corbyn can get back to being on the same side of every argument as most Labour members, as opposed to being uncomfortably on the wrong side of the Brexit question.
I’m not saying a second referendum won’t happen – hell, anything could still happen. Just after the Grieve amendment, I think Norway Plus looks way more likely. Even that is a somewhat complicated place to get to from where we are now – but I think more MPs will want to go there than have to have the country experience another EU referendum. One MP in particular, Jeremy Corbyn, could prove instrumental in what happens to Brexit.