Rosa Luxemburg said that “The most revolutionary thing one can do is always to proclaim loudly what is happening”, consider this a whisper. Last night Theresa May’s Brexit deal went down to a staggering defeat of 230 votes, the biggest defeat suffered by a British government in modern history. In ordinary times, this would almost certainly spell the end of a prime minister. But these are extraordinary times. Although May is deeply unpopular, there is no clear parliamentary or public majority for an alternative to her deal.

In the absence of such an alternative, May seems determined to hang on. She has until Monday to present a ‘Plan B’ – a way forward that unifies her bitterly divided Cabinet and which, she hopes, will secure enough support to pass the House of Commons. All signs point to an extension of Article 50, which would push back the deadline for the UK’s exit in order that negotiations around a withdrawal deal can be re-opened. This would require the unanimous support of the EU27 leaders through the European Council. And, while EU negotiators are holding firm in their public insistence that the current deal is ‘the best compromise’, privately they have been preparing to delay Brexit until at least July. After all, they would rather see that Brexit is cancelled entirely.

A motion of no confidence

The British Labour Party is in favour of extending the negotiating period beyond the European Parliament elections in May. In the meantime, Corbyn has tabled a motion of no confidence that will be put to the vote tonight at 7pm (GMT). In doing this he hopes to trigger an early Westminster election, to be fought on the basis that a Labour government would seek to negotiate a deal for Customs Union membership and Single Market access while rapidly implementing its manifesto commitments. This position is supported by the general secretaries of four British trade unions: Unite, Unison, the Communication Workers’ Union (CWU) and the Transport Salaried Staff Association (TSSA).

But while Labour’s motion will have the support of the opposition parties, it looks destined to fail as Tory Brexiteers and the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) have both indicated that they would support May in a confidence vote. This leads to a consideration of Labour’s strategic options. Corbyn is keen to avoid a so-called ‘people’s vote’, understanding that it would likely result in one of two disastrous outcomes: another victory for Leave and a confidence boost for the right; or a narrow win for Remain, which would not resolve the underlying factors behind Brexit or the divisions it has helped to entrench.

Corbyn’s big challenge

The big challenge for Corbyn is that while the Labour membership and Parliamentary Labour Party are pro-Remain and sympathetic to the holding of a second referendum, the majority of Labour constituencies voted Leave. There appears to be no obvious or immediate strategy for managing this tension in a progressive direction. On the one hand, the scale of the government’s defeat on Tuesday supports the argument that what should follow is a sustained campaign to oust the Tory government through parliamentary pressure and a grassroots mobilisation of Labour Party and trade union members. This is Corbyn’s preferred strategy, although the impetus for such a mobilisation would need to be built very quickly and would depend on the practical cooperation of key unions.

On the other hand, provisions that allow for the UK parliament to propose alternative solutions to Brexit are pointing in the direction of a cross-party agreement between the centrist majority. Voting trends and public declarations by MPs suggest that some form of Norway-plus deal would command a parliamentary majority. However, there are a number of reasons for the left to be cautious of this idea. Firstly, it is being driven by Tory MP Nick Boles in alliance with Labour Remainers. Conceived in the Westminster bubble, the proposal has no connection with the labour movement or the strategic imperatives of Corbyn’s long-term project, but instead threatens to undermine them while consolidating the Tory’s position in power.

A way out of the crisis

Secondly, it has been argued that a Norway-plus arrangement does not represent the panacea it is often made out to be. For example, it would mean remaining within the EEA and Single Market, demanding compliance with the ‘four freedoms’ – of movement for goods, services, capital and labour. As Grace Blakeley has argued elsewhere, this would severely impede the Labour Party’s capacity to restrict the flow of capital in the form capital controls or a tax on financial transactions. Moreover, the Norwegian model ties the state to the EU’s regressive policies on state aid, public ownership, procurement and workers’ rights. Technically, while a socialist government might retain the power of veto within this arrangement, in practice this would be contested and involve some form of confrontation with the EU.

Thus, there is much for the Labour and trade union left to consider as it looks to forge a way out of the current crisis. The Labour leadership intends to table a motion of no confidence at least once more, when the details of May’s Plan B are better known. But unless there is an unexpected setback at a European level, we are looking at an extension to the negotiating period and a protracted road to a workable deal. Ultimately, Corbyn may be railroaded into backing a Norway-plus solution or something representing a marginal, even cosmetic improvement on what May currently has – particularly if it avoids the potentially damaging consequences brought by a second referendum. Something, however, will need to change – and quickly – if Labour are to productively seize on the limited opportunities that the situation presents.

by Stiofán Ó Nualláin & Seán Byers

Originally published on 16 January 2019 at as part of the In historical thunder and lightning series which examined the Impact of Brexit.