Had the vote on the 'European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Act 2017', a bill little longer than a doctor's note, been along party lines - i.e. had all MPs obeyed their whip - then the government would have won. Had the vote sought to accurately represent constituency opinion, then the government would still have won, presumably on something close to a 52/48 split to reflect the popular division last June. Had Labour whipped its MPs to vote against the bill, whether as a matter of principle (the absence of a coherent plan) or as a tactical manoeuvre (to lay down negotiation red lines), then the government would still have won, notwithstanding Ken Clarke's rebellion and even assuming the improbability of Labour leavers like Gisela Stuart, Graham Stringer and Kate Hoey observing the whip. The only circumstances under which the government could have lost would have been a free vote, and that in turn assumes that MPs would have remained largely consistent with their preferences as expressed in the days leading up to the referendum when a clear majority were in favour of staying in the EU.
Of course, a free vote might still have led to a government win if enough MPs had converted from remain to leave since last June. Some might have sincerely changed their minds because of the referendum outcome, perhaps having been won over by the leave campaign's persuasive arguments and incontrovertible facts, but any insisting that they were now obliged to vote against their own belief by a superior need to reflect that of their constituents would be abrogating parliamentary sovereignty, the very principle for which many leavers insisted that we must quit the EU and the same principle confirmed by the Supreme Court's Miller judgement. Had a free vote led to a defeat for the government, this would have been a clear reassertion of parliamentary sovereignty but also a clear rejection of the referendum; i.e. confirmation that not only was the popular vote last June advisory - in effect treating it as a second opinion - but that the advice wasn't decisive in Parliament's final consideration.
If nothing else, this sorry sequence - marked by the naivety of remainers as much as the hypocrisy of leavers - should make crystal clear that parliamentary sovereignty is a myth. A positive result of last year's referendum is that a plebiscitary dictatorship remains remote, not least because the danger of a popular vote backfiring will make future governments reluctant to take the risk. Remainers calling for a second referendum are wilfully ignoring this point. Should the negotiations with the EU lead to an obviously bad outcome that turns popular opinion, you'd hope the Commons would seize the initiative and "represent" this rather than offload the problem to another referendum. A less positive result is that executive dictatorship has been reinforced through the immediate erosion of parliamentary sovereignty and the ongoing weakening of scrutiny under cover of Brexit planning and negotiation. In retrospect, MPs were foolish in not understanding what David Cameron had staked in calling last year's referendum. This was certainly a vote on parliamentary sovereignty, but one in which the real threat was not the EU (as the white paper implicitly and ruefully admits) but the executive, both in its cavalier misjudgement and its lust for the covert.
Looked at in the context of the centuries old struggle between Crown (the executive) and Parliament, it is the Crown that is winning, as it has been since the "great centralisation", started under Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s, began to erode the diffuse sovereignty of local government, unions and public corporations. New Labour's commitment to managerialist opacity and media manipulation ensured that Thatcher's legacy was consolidated, rather than challenged, with the Commons famously marginalised during the build up to the Iraq War by "sofa government". While Cameron took a more "chillaxed" approach to public presentation than the famously anguished Blair, this obscured the further institutionalisation of executive power behind the scenes, not least in Theresa May's domain at the Home Office. The fear is that the effective exclusion of the Commons from proper scrutiny of the government over the next two years, with "commercial confidentiality" becoming as prevalent an excuse as "national security", will lead to a growing acceptance that the House should have only a weak power to interrogate or curb ministers, and one best achieved through narrowly-focused select committees (whose creation in 1979 now looks ever more obviously to have been an inadequate compensation for the subsequent weakening of civic society).
The failure to hold a free vote was entirely down to the decision of pro-remain Tory MPs, with May at their head, to pursue a hard Brexit for essentially opportunistic reasons. The moment the Prime Minister said "Brexit means Brexit" the pass was sold and this week's vote became little more than a formality. The Supreme Court judgement was notable for not presenting the government with any problems: it insisted on the pomp of a Commons vote but rode roughshod over the circumstance of devolution. The Tories have compromised parliamentary sovereignty for the sake of preserving executive power - first in Cameron's decision to allow a decisive referendum and then in the vote this week. Insofar as a strategy can be discerned, it is to pay lip-service to perceived public opinion in the areas of immigration and "foreign control" (as interpreted by the press); accept a degree of economic damage as the necessary cost of divorce (but look after the City); and then push through economic and social "reforms" hitherto impeded by the EU (which means weakening worker rights and consumer protection more than increased state support) with the justification that this will make us more competitive and thus defray the cost.
Leave won the referendum for two key reasons: most Tory voters opted to quit the EU, offsetting the majority of Labour and minor party voters who opted to remain; and the leave campaign mobilised a reactionary element that does not usually vote - i.e. they got the bulk of the increased turnout. It was the latter that was decisive. The Conservative Party appears to believe it can tempt this element into the polling booth more often, essentially by making all future elections centre on Brexit. To this end, a hard Brexit (and a focus on immigration and "control") makes electoral sense. It also explains why the government is reluctant to articulate its strategy, as it boils down to deliberate self-harm. The obvious lesson to draw from this is that the Tories remain the party of power for whom conscience is a luxury and collateral damage is simply somebody else's problem, while Labour remains the party of dissent for whom a plurality of opinion is inevitable. Criticising Corbyn for this is as otiose as criticising May for being unprincipled.
In the circumstances, I'm genuinely surprised that the government's laughably naff white paper on Brexit hasn't immediately snatched the title from Labour's 1983 manifesto as "the longest suicide note in history". At best it serves as a compelling if accidental diagnosis of some particularly morbid symptoms (the lack of facts around immigration, the havering around employment rights), but it is utterly inadequate as a prognosis let alone a course of recommended treatment. This failure is ultimately not the fault of a government that appears simultaneously clueless and malign, but of a House of Commons that has been on life support for decades, failing in its responsibility to fairly represent the electorate and ever more cringeing and subservient in its attitude towards the executive. Diane Abbott may well have bottled the vote on triggering Article 50, but it is short-sighted fools like John Mann who have done most to bring Parliament into disrepute.