Theresa May tried to pull off a Houdini-esque escape act on Tuesday, turning a 230-vote defeat in January into a victory in March.
Her tactics were clear – win the backing of 10 MPs from Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist party, hope that around 85 Conservative Eurosceptic MPs followed their lead, and also put pressure on 20 or so Labour MPs in Brexit seats to make up the numbers.
For a moment on Tuesday morning, the great escape looked like it might actually happen, when Eurosceptics reacted positively to late concessions announced in Strasbourg.
But in the end, none of Mrs May’s pillars stood up. She lost the DUP late on Tuesday morning, after attorney-general Geoffrey Cox published his legal advice showing that the legal risk of the UK being trapped in the backstop to prevent a hard border with Ireland remained “unchanged”. The DUP objects to the fact that the measure would apply different rules to Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.
The DUP’s opposition also made it very difficult for hardline Conservative Eurosceptics to come to Mrs May’s support. A total of 75 Conservative MPs – one in four – voted against the government, including possible leadership contenders Boris Johnson and Dominic Raab.
In fairness, the number of Tory rebels fell from the 115 who voted against her deal in January (excluding MPs who have now become independents). The switchers were nearly all Brexiters, including David Davis, who resigned as Brexit secretary last July in protest at the course of negotiations, Graham Brady, chair of the influential 1922 committee of Tory MPs, and John Hayes, who was given a knighthood by Mrs May last year.
Sixteen of the converts to Mrs May’s deal are members of the European Research Group of Tory Eurosceptics, showing how that much-vaunted group is far from united. But Mrs May is still some way off from needing just one more heave.
Perhaps the sharpest indication of the prime minister’s failure was the lack of Labour votes for her deal. Only three Labour MPs backed the deal, up from two in January. (Both figures exclude Ian Austin, who was a Labour MP but became an independent between the votes.) The sole Labour switcher was Caroline Flint. That is a poor return for Downing Street, which had offered reassurances on workers’ rights and a £1.6bn towns fund for left-behind areas of the UK.
There are plenty of Labour MPs who might feel uneasy about casting a decisive vote against a Brexit deal. But while there are so many Tories opposing the deal, Labour MPs do not have to face that dilemma.
Only one MP – the Conservatives’ Douglas Ross – abstained (leaving aside the usual non-voters – the speaker, deputy speakers and Sinn Fein). Mr Ross’s wife went into labour early on Tuesday, too late for him to use parliament’s new proxy voting system.
It is often suggested that MPs agonising over their decision on Brexit will abstain. But in reality any politician who did not vote on the crucial issue of this parliament would have a hard time looking their constituents in the eye.