Another exhausting day for anyone tasked with following Brexit closely. Yvette Cooper’s bill, which aims to make sure Theresa May sticks to her word and requests an extension from the EU, avoiding no deal on 12th April, was passed by the Commons in the most dramatic way. First, an amendment tabled by Hilary Benn that would have made way for a third session of indicative votes on Monday did not get approval – the vote was a tie. Yes, MPs were deadlocked on whether to try to break the Brexit deadlock. Speaker Bercow, citing precedent, cast his vote with the government, so there will be no more indicative votes for now.
Then the motion on whether to go ahead with the Cooper bill passed by just one vote, with Gareth Snell switching to vote in favour. Over the next six hours, the short Cooper bill had a very tricky passage through the Commons. It was approved by five votes at the second reading, before being attacked by Tory Brexiteers who endeavoured to block the possibility of a long extension beyond European elections. (As Labour peer Stewart Wood tweeted, the extension could be the new backstop, with rows over time limits and being able to exit unilaterally.) Finally, nearing midnight, the whole bill scraped through by just one vote. The House of Lords is expected to give its approval today.
During all of that drama in the chamber, talks between party leaders were held. The most important saw the Prime Minister and Jeremy Corbyn meet, described as a “constructive” exercise by both afterwards. But how constructive? It is difficult to tell. Two ministers resigned over May’s apparent shift towards a softer Brexit (with others waiting to see what comes out of it), so it’s easy to see why cards might be kept close to chests there. Plus, according to ex-Tory MP Nick Boles, her comms head is “a hard Brexiteer who wants to destroy the PM’s new search for a cross party compromise”. On the Labour side, the leader’s office seemed to downplay progress in their message to MPs. Some suspected this could be a ploy to avoid calls for an emergency PLP meeting. After all, new negotiating teams were formed, a planning meeting was held last night and technical discussions are to be had throughout today. It can’t have been a total failure.
Reports on the negotiations this morning often conclude that it may be difficult for Corbyn and May to resolve their differences over Brexit. But the truth is that, with May now willing to allow a closer UK-EU future relationship, the party leaders aren’t all that far apart from each other. The clashes are really between them on one side and their respective party grassroots and MPs on the other. For Labour, the question is whether any deal – or only a Tory deal – should be put to a public vote. The shadow cabinet and parliamentary party are deeply split. There is a huge amount of pressure on Corbyn to make a referendum a condition of supporting any deal. He has resisted so far, but that could change. Either way, frontbench resignations are a risk.
It’s the Newport West by-election today. Very best of luck to candidate Ruth Jones, who is fighting off lots of opponents to keep the late Paul Flynn’s former seat red. Sign up to LabourList’s morning email for everything Labour, every weekday morning.