It is Thursday afternoon and 20-year-old art student Sonya Woodruff has taken time off from her studies to make a point about Brexit outside parliament. She is standing quietly against the black railings as the rain comes down, holding a purple sign which reads: “No one voted for this Brexit mess.”
Inside the Commons, MPs are preparing for a third consecutive night of voting on Brexit as they try to break the interminable deadlock. They have already, in the previous two days, taken two big decisions which seem to some of the protesters outside rather contradictory. On Tuesday they voted down Theresa May’s Brexit deal for a second time and the next evening rejected leaving the EU with no deal. Later on Thursday they will decide whether to ask the EU for a delay – more than two and a half years on from the referendum and with just over two weeks to go until the UK is due to leave the EU.
The atmosphere among MPs and ministers in the lobbies is grim. The cabinet, which has held a series of bad-tempered emergency meetings in the previous 48 hours, is at war. On the pavement outside, people are confused and tense. “Someone got arrested earlier,” says Woodruff. “When I got here I was too scared to talk to any Leavers. They were so defensive.”
It quickly becomes apparent why there is even more friction than normal between the rival groups of protesters. A few yards away, a woman with a tricycle that has a union jack strapped to its handlebars is wearing a shirt which says “WTO Rules”. She is strikingly calm, given what she says happened to her two days before. “A man came up to me and called me a Nazi scumbag,” she says. “He grabbed me from behind and then dragged me down to the ground. Then he started to beat me with my own flag and tried to break my windpipe.” The police, she says, have told her it was caught on CCTV and that they are investigating.
She decided to come back two days later, bearing scars and having seen her doctor, because she feels strongly that Brexit is being betrayed. Behind her are banners held by other Leavers. “Leave Now. I’m thinking what Guy Fawkes thought,” one says.
No one outside the Palace of Westminster believes their side is winning the Brexit battle. Everyone feels they are the losers. But one matter they do agree on is that the politicians have let them down.
Last week’s events in the Commons illustrated the depth of the crisis. Three days of hugely important votes did not chart a clearer way forward. They merely confirmed what MPs did not want – and that in all probability Brexit will have to be delayed. Labour seemed indecisive at times, and to be offering just more of the same. Chaos inside the Westminster bubble fed the public’s anger and despair outside. “There has been no attempt at all to find consensus with the public,” says Woodruff. “Holding a referendum was the dumbest thing ever. It has just divided the country. I think it is too late.”
One of the most important but also chaotic weeks in recent British political history began as it was to go on, with fruitless negotiations that failed to bridge the gap between the UK and the EU, or between Tory MPs of wildly different persuasions. On Monday afternoon, Theresa May flew to Strasbourg for last-minute talks with the European commission’s president, Jean-Claude Juncker, about the Irish backstop – the issue of most concern to many of her pro-Brexit backbenchers. If they were to back her deal they wanted reassurance that the backstop would not mean the UK being trapped in a permanent customs union.
May was already feeling under the weather as she sat down with Juncker, who then proceeded to smoke throughout their meeting.
Shortly before 10pm, hopes rose that a breakthrough had been achieved: Downing Street said new legal assurances had been agreed. It was now up to the attorney general, Geoffrey Cox, who had been shuttling to and from Brussels for weeks, to interpret it all and put a good gloss on it. He would publish his advice on whether the assurances were legally watertight the next day.
Cox stayed up all night wrestling with his statement and presented it to the Cabinet early on Tuesday.
Ministers took one look at what he had produced and were aghast. Cox’s statement, which he would shortly be delivering to the Commons, said explicitly that if the UK and EU failed to agree a future relationship and the backstop had to come into use, “the legal risks I set it out in my letter of 13 November remain unchanged”. In other words, the assurances that the hard-Brexit European Research Group (ERG), led by Jacob Rees-Mogg, had demanded were not there. Nothing had changed in the pure legal sense: just the words were more reassuring.
The health secretary, Matt Hancock, expressed his dismay. “He thought Cox’s advice was very badly framed, politically,” said a cabinet source. “It gave the ERG no way out, no excuse to climb down.”
A Tory minister said: “Cox has to safeguard his legal reputation. He knows he can’t lie. He can’t mislead. He is a lawyer. He wants to go and make big bucks in the legal profession after this. Who can blame him? Why have we put the whole thing in the hands of a lawyer who was never going to deliver the advice we needed? It is chaos.”
Early on Tuesday afternoon, a nervous-looking Cox headed into the office of the chief whip, Julian Smith. Smith had been trying desperately to persuade enough Tories to vote for May’s deal that evening, but his hopes were fading fast. The meeting lasted five tense minutes. Smith was “beyond despair”, according to Tory MPs who saw him.
At 2pm May rose in the Commons to appeal for support. Her exhausted voice cracked and the words failed to fully form. “It was pathetic and sad to watch,” remarked one Tory minister. “Fuckadoodledoo,” was all one serving minister could say after watching her. Labour MPs jeered and Tories were silent. “You should hear Jean-Claude Juncker’s voice as a result of our conversation,” was May’s lame attempt to lighten the Commons mood.
The ERG had met and decided to vote against. The DUP had reached the same conclusion. One Tory MP who had been trying to find a reason to back May said: “I can’t now. I can’t. Cox has blown up my escape route.” When the shadow Brexit secretary, Keir Starmer, summed up for Labour at 6.45pm, he was heard in funereal silence as the extent of the crisis dawned across both benches. In the vote, May lost by 391 votes to 242 – a margin of 149. Seventy-five Tories voted against.
What now? Jeremy Corbyn mocked the prime minister but caused a stir on the opposition benches by failing even to mention Labour’s supposed commitment to a second referendum. Would May now resign? Or would she hand over the handling of Brexit to parliament and abandon her deal? Certainly not.
“I profoundly regret the decision that this House has reached tonight,” she told MPs. She confirmed that she would hold votes on the next two evenings on whether MPs wanted to rule out no-deal and, if they did, whether they wanted her to ask the EU for an extension. She said she would give her MPs a free vote on no-deal. But she was equally clear that she would keep pushing her twice-rejected deal. It was “the best and indeed the only deal available”, she told MPs. Defeated, battered and voiceless, she was ploughing on.
If Tuesday had demonstrated the depth of Tory opposition to May’s Brexit blueprint and her equally stubborn refusal to ditch it, Wednesday and Thursday witnessed the total disintegration of discipline inside her government. Somehow, amid it all, ministers and Tory MPs found time to plot over whether to get rid of May in the nation’s hour of greatest need. “We can’t carry on like this,” said a former Cabinet minister. “But what would the country think if we pushed her out now?”
Labour MPs were divided too. The opposition high command thought about holding another confidence vote in May but decided not to. Opposition MPs who back a second referendum were in despair about Corbyn’s failure to mention it the night before. “Has he forgotten our policy?” asked one. The shadow foreign secretary, Emily Thornberry, compounded Labour Remainers’ anger on Wednesday when she told Emma Barnett on Radio 5 Live that Labour would have pushed for a second referendum if May’s deal had passed. Incredulous Labour MPs asked what the point would be of a referendum when a deal had already been agreed.
Labour’s splits were as nothing compared to the Tory anarchy that became evident in the vote on no-deal on Wednesday.
May’s original motion, on which her party was to have been given a free vote, was to rule out no-deal on 29 March, Brexit Day, but keep it on the table beyond that. But an amendment that was pushed to a vote by Labour’s Yvette Cooper said it should be ruled out in all circumstances, for good. Cooper’s amendment, voted on before the main vote, passed by just four votes, meaning the motion was now amended in a way that May did not want.
Government whips were thrown into panic and decided to ditch the free vote on the main motion as amended, ordering all Tories to reject it. But Remain-inclined cabinet ministers – including Amber Rudd, the work and pensions secretary, Greg Clark, the business secretary, David Gauke, the justice secretary, David Mundell, the Scottish Secretary, and energy minister Claire Perry – were among a big group who defied the whip and abstained. The motion as amended, ruling out no-deal in all circumstances, passed by 321 to 278. The chief whip was furious and May “seethed”, said one cabinet source.
Thursday morning’s cabinet was a bloodbath as May dressed down the rebels, who tried to explain themselves, saying the confusion over whipping was partly to blame. Smith stormed out as the excuses flowed. The ERG demanded that May sack the rebels. Gauke had offered to quit the night before but when he made clear to Smith that if he did so a dozen other ministers would follow, it was decided he should stay.
Thursday’s events inside and outside parliament – culminating in a vote on whether to delay Brexit – were another window on a political system that had all but broken down. That morning, another protester, Melvin Wisebad, who was holding two signs outside the gates – one saying “Just Leave” and the other telling drivers to “Just Hoot. We Voted Leave” – said he had been attacked by an eastern European passerby. “He shouted ‘you are ruining my life’,” Wisebad said. “He took a swing at me but I’m an ex-publican. I ducked and he just hit my board instead. I know how to deal with people like that.”
That evening, MPs voted down an amendment tabled by Sarah Wollaston, of the new Independent Group of MPs, in favour of a second referendum by 334 to 85. Labour had ordered its MPs to abstain, saying the time for a public vote was not right. The government then saw off an amendment that would have put MPs in charge of Brexit and strip May of any remaining authority over the process – but only by two votes, 314 to 312. Smith did a fist-pump of joy as the result was read out. A member of the Tories’ 1922 executive said afterwards: “We just fucking won something.”
But the vote on the main government motion to ask for a short delay to Brexit saw more farcical scenes unfold. Summing up for the government, the Brexit secretary, Stephen Barclay, commended the motion to the House, then promptly voted against what he just urged MPs to support, along with seven other cabinet ministers. Starmer said it was “like the chancellor voting against his own budget.”
After the motion to delay passed by 413 to 202, Corbyn said he thought a deal based on Labour’s Brexit plan could still be agreed. He added: “I also reiterate our support for a public vote, not as political point-scoring but as a realistic option to break the deadlock.” Anna Soubry of the Independent Group then made Pinocchio nose signs in the Labour leader’s direction.
This weekend, May is spending her time trying to win round more Tory MPs, and the DUP, to her deal – yet again. She will put it back before the Commons on Tuesday for a third time. Labour will throw its support behind an amendment that would allow a Brexit deal to pass on condition that a public vote was then held to approve it, with the option to remain being on the ballot paper. On Thursday and Friday, May will attend a Brussels summit where EU leaders will decide whether to allow the UK to delay Brexit and on what terms. And then on Saturday, Leavers and Remainers will march on Westminster in their hundreds of thousands in rival demonstrations.
Wisebad said he hoped there would be “no more violence”. As he did so, a passerby said “balls to Brexit” and another roared “We love EU” as the two sides of the argument kept safe distances from each other – and the country tried to fathom what on earth the last extraordinary week in the Brexit saga had all been about.