Theresa May has been dealt the heaviest blow that any prime minister has suffered in history — without being forced to resign. It was a greater defeat than anybody expected, and despite perhaps the most impassioned speech the Prime Minister has ever given. To have lost a whipped vote by 230 votes means that the Withdrawal Agreement is dead. There will be a motion of no confidence on Wednesday, after Jeremy Corbyn was finally and most reluctantly persuaded to test the mood of the House.
The Government will win the confidence vote, but the Brexit process is now seriously in doubt. Unless Mrs May and her colleagues can come up with a new proposal, no deal is the default position. Jean-Claude Juncker says that “the risk of a disorderly Brexit has increased” with this evening’s vote. But it is clear from the debate before the vote that the Commons is not prepared to accept leaving without a deal.
The only way forward for the May Government now, obviously, is to listen. But to whom? Not to the Labour Party or the other Opposition parties, none of whom have enough common ground with the Conservatives. She should listen to the country. Public opinion has moved far beyond the House of Commons, many of whose members would dearly like to abandon Brexit altogether. If the Prime Minister can appeal over the heads of the politicians, she can still rally support in the country and put pressure on Brussels.
Boris Johnson suddenly re-emerged last night to urge Mrs May to abandon the backstop. He may lack credibility as a party loyalist, but it is significant that he was urging preparations for no deal and described the “scare stories” as “grossly exaggerated”.
The Prime Minister is mortally damaged, but she can still deliver one last service to the national interest. If she can persuade Parliament that the country expects that Brexit will still happen at the end of March, the Commons could yet send her back to Brussels with an ultimatum. Either the EU accepts an amended version of the deal, or the UK leaves without one. Perhaps the price for parliamentary support for such an ultimatum would be a second referendum. But it is clear that the House expects the Prime Minister to negotiate more aggressively than she has done hitherto. If Mrs May does not feel equal to that task, she should make way for someone else.
One thing is clear: a fourth Conservative Prime Minister has now been destroyed by Europe. The Tory Party has once again turned on its leader. It had better know what it is doing. Brexit is bigger than any party and if the Tories do not deliver it, they will be swept out of office at the first opportunity.