Looking at the print headlines today, you would think this coming week is about another referendum, but that’s more of a convenient narrative for No10 than an accurate summation of the current situation. The government is expected to try to bring forward another meaningful vote this afternoon, yet – as anyone paying attention over the weekend will know – that plan is unlikely to fly. The House of Commons has already considered the matter: it passed the government motion on Brexit without division, as amended by Oliver Letwin. In doing so, MPs forced the Prime Minister to request a delay on Saturday. This led to the government abandoning the vote on the main motion, but nonetheless it passed. The Speaker is therefore likely to reject this attempt, as the same question cannot be brought forward more than once during the same parliamentary session.
It seemed on Saturday morning as if there were enough ex-Tories and Labour rebels on board with the government to get the new Brexit deal approved. In closing a loophole in the Benn Act and further guarding against no deal, Letwin’s move has had another crucial consequence: to give MPs more time to consider the detail of the latest offer. That’s why there is talk of Labour thwarting Brexit with proposals for another referendum – because the government will now have to present the withdrawal agreement bill itself, which opposition parties and backbenchers will enjoy using as a pin cushion. With possibilities opening up for changing the legislation to include a customs union and single market alignment, a confirmatory vote and protection against a 2020 no deal, death by a thousand amendments awaits the Brexit deal.
Perhaps it is not death that will result, but further delay instead. The numbers for a public vote aren’t there, should we have to remind anyone. There is a chance that a customs union amendment could succeed, however, perhaps even without DUP support. If so, it is widely assumed that this would kill the deal. And yet there may be more advantages to the government in allowing that agreement to pass – unsound though it would then be considered by the Conservative Party. An early election is inevitable, so why not run on the basis of having got Brexit done and with the idea of scrapping the customs union part once a majority is secured? Boris Johnson could ultimately prefer to reject the changed deal and incorporate the customs union challenge into his narrative of a traitorous parliament, yet that would seem less reasonable than rejecting it because a second referendum had been attached. Really, I’m sorry to inform you that anything could happen. The Brexit drama continues, with no end in sight. Sign up to LabourList’s morning email for everything Labour, every weekday morning.