Prime Minister heavily defeated...but what does it mean?

The Prime Minister's proposed Brexit deal suffered a
bruising defeat this evening. (Photo: BBC)
Well, that wasn't remotely close.

Before Christmas I actually thought the Prime Minister might actually get her deal through Parliament. And while in recent days it was obvious Theresa May would fail, I didn't see such a crushing defeat on the horizon.

The result: Ayes 202, Noes 432. 

That is massive. Absolutely stunning - the worst defeat for sitting UK Prime Minister. And the scale of this defeat will inevitably lead to questions being asked about both the Prime Minister and the substantive issue in question - Britain's exiting the European Union.

There is no doubt the Prime Minister, her government and the Brexit strategy are all seriously damaged. Eventually Mrs May's approach of playing for time would come unstuck, and now it seems she has nowhere else to turn. From what we've seen tonight she appears resolved to continue regardless, refusing to look facts in the face. That is a huge mistake, but in her mind it was always "my deal or no deal". Parliament has now rejected them both.

Theresa May does have one advantage, however. And that is that the opposition is led by Jeremy Corbyn. He has, over the last two years, consistently failed to take key opportunities. There are reasons why Labour, even now, trails the Tories in opinion polls. And while the government has presented labour and its leader with a historical, glorious, and unprecedented opportunity it remains to be seen whether Jeremy Corbyn understands how to seize that opportunity.

So far he's played the predictable game in calling a vote of no confidence in the government. But it's a vote he's very unlikely to win. What happens if/when he loses? What is Labour's Plan B?  

Labour sees a General Election as the way out of the constitutional mess. That might make some sense if it was clear that Labour would win that election, or if it had a distinctly different view on Brexit. As it stands, polling suggests we might be looking at yet another hung parliament, with Labour improving their parliamentary numbers but still having fewer seats than the Tories. Electoral Calculus's recent poll has the Conservatives on 291 seats and Labour on 280. Crucially, the SNP would hold the balance of power. 

Just think about that situation for a moment. How would such a General Election result resolve the Brexit impasse? It may actually worsen the situation, and we would have a full scale constitutional crisis to deal with.

Jeremy Corbyn has stated tonight that "the result is the greatest defeat for the government since the 1920s....The House has delivered its verdict and that verdict is absolutely decisive..."no deal" must be taken off the table, a permanent customs union must be secured and people's rights and protections must be guaranteed."  And I can't argue with that, other than to point out tonight's defeat was worse than those he refers to in the 1920s. The problem is that he only sees one way out - and that is bringing down a government and forcing a General Election. On Brexit he proposes nothing more than a slightly improved version of Theresa May's deal - he doesn't say how he will address the complex and controversial issues such as the Northern Ireland "backstop". Neither does he explain why he believes the EU would be open to renegotiation, or why Parliament would necessarily vote through a deal not so dissimilar to that it has rejected this evening..

Compare this with what First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said tonight: "The SNP supports the tabled vote of no confidence in the Government – but regardless of who leads the government, the reality is that a second EU referendum, with the option of remain on the ballot paper, is now the only credible option to avoid untold damage to the economy and the prospects of future generations. It is also the only option, within the UK, that would allow Scotland's democratic wish to remain within the EU to be respected." Just think of the possibilities if Jeremy Corbyn could bring himself to say something similar - something that actually offers a realistic way out. If only he had the courage to support the only realistic means of resolving the central issue once and for all. As things stand, Ms Sturgeon is right as far as Brexit is concerned: it matters little whether the party of UK government is red or blue. I have confidence in neither.

I am not a huge fan of referenda, and I am a reluctant convert to the People's Vote idea. What is now apparent is that, as the First Minister and others (such as Vince Cable and Caroline Lucas) have pointed out, with Parliament unable to move forward the British public should have a say on the final outcome. They can tell us if this deal was what they voted for in 2016. Theresa May says we should listen to the British people, "who want this issue settled". For once I agree: how exactly do you intend to settle this, Prime Minister? With only ten weeks to go, it's far from obvious that there is any single way forward that Parliament can support. 

The detail of how a People's Vote would work is for another discussion. Right now, the question is what this defeat means for the government. While the defeat was both crushing and humiliating, a decisive blow has not (yet) been struck. The Prime Minister may be wounded, but she's struggling on. Some grandstanding from the Labour leader won't worry her unduly. There is no easy way out of this constitutional mess and a General Election is definitely not the answer.

If tomorrow's vote fails as expected, the Prime Minister may well revert to her usual strategy of playing for time and running down the clock in the hope that the risk of leaving without a deal on 29th March frightens the rebels into line. With so many rebels, however, that's a very dangerous approach to take.

It's not clear whether either Mrs May or Mr Corbyn have a Plan B. Given that this saga has rumbled on for the best part of 30 months, that defies belief. Rather than provide certainty, tonight's drama has raised more questions than answers. Indeed, it's very difficult to know exactly what the longer term meaning of the "meaningful" vote might be.

This isn't over yet. Not by a long distance.

I'll leave the final word to James O'Brien. I think he captures perfectly the reality of the situation: