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21 January 2019

Brexit: Nothing has changed… yet

Brexit, Government Affairs

What has happened?

  • The Prime Minister has given a statement to MPs outlining her Brexit Plan B following the heavy defeat of her Brexit deal last week. She announced three measures that she hopes will allow MPs to back her deal:
    1. giving MPs an enhanced role in post-Brexit trade talks; 
    2. seeking Parliamentary agreement for negotiable changes to the Irish backstop, with a view to addressing its permanency and its Northern-Ireland specific provisions, which she will then present to the EU;
    3. reiterating the Government’s commitment to maintaining high employment and environmental provisions, including ‘taking into account’ future EU developments in this area.
  • In addition, she also announced that the Government would be scrapping the £65 fee for EU nationals currently resident in the UK who wish to secure their settled status post Brexit. This is smart politics and it will be a popular move across the Brexit spectrum. In waving the fee the PM hopes to buy some goodwill among fellow EU leaders around the Northern Irish backstop issue.
  • In response, Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn accused Mrs May of being in “deep denial” and said that she would need to amend her red lines.
  • In the first meaningful crack in the EU’s united front, Polish Foreign Minister Jacek Czaputowicz said that Ireland should consider a five-year time-limit to the backstop. A time limit on the backstop is something the EU has always refused to countenance, and indeed the idea was quickly shut down by both EU Chief negotiator Michel Barnier and Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney.

What happens next?

  • MPs will debate and vote on the motion setting out the Government’s approach on Tuesday 29 January.
  • The motion will be amendable, meaning that in the coming week MPs will table a number of amendments. Some amendments will call for specific actions, such as the negotiation of a permanent UK-EU customs union, while others will be procedural and aim to give Parliament more control over the process, such as requesting a possible extension to Article 50.
  • These amendments are primarily concerned less with solving the Brexit impasse itself than they are with extending the time available to MPs to find a resolution to that impasse.

Why does it matter?

  • The Prime Minister’s Plan B for Brexit looks a lot like her Plan A, the same plan A voted down by 432 votes to 202 last week. This time, she is hoping to return to Brussels with a Parliamentary majority behind her request for changes to the Northern Irish backstop. To do that she will need to persuade Tory Brexiteers and her DUP allies that she’s serious about negotiable changes to that backstop in order for them to come around and back the deal. It appears if anything that she sees the only way to a majority is to harden her stance not soften it. Any attempt to find a genuinely cross-party solution has it seems proved short-lived.
  • However, her refusal to commit that this would entail changes to the legally binding Withdrawal Agreement means that winning Tory Brexiteers and the DUP around will continue to prove very difficult. It bears repeating that it is hard to see how the backstop can be addressed to assuage Tory/DUP objections and retain its function as an all-weather insurance policy acceptable to the EU.
  • By refusing to back an extension of Article 50 – which would provide extra time to negotiate – the Prime Minister is indicating that the clock is ticking, and she’s prepared to countenance that. It’s brinkmanship for sure – by running the clock down she hopes to bounce MPs keen to avoid no deal into backing her deal and/or the EU to make further concessions. However, neither of these things might happen until closer to the exit date, or indeed they not happen at all, leading inevitably to an unintended chaotic Brexit. 
  • That the Prime Minister has laid down a motion which is amendable is significant. On the on hand it buys her more time to determine her plan – as the Government can lay down further amendments of their own. On the other hand it also opens up the possibility of MPs coalescing around an alternative plan. However, even if any of these alternative amendments were to win majority support in parliament, they are not binding on the Government.
  • Labour’s Shadow Brexit Secretary Keir Starmer indicated a shift in Labour’s Brexit positioning over the weekend, accepting that any deal will have to involve a Northern Irish backstop, and stating that Labour’s Brexit policy had entered its ‘third phase’. The pressure on Jeremy Corbyn is growing, as many MPs and Party members point to Labour’s Party Conference motion on Brexit, which said the Party must consider all options, including a second referendum.
  • For the time being, Corbyn’s Labour are able to continue with a relatively ambiguous Brexit policy. Crunch time is fast approaching however, and Corbyn will soon have to make a definitive decision – if he wants to avoid both a second referendum and a no deal Brexit, Labour may well end up having to back Mrs May’s ‘Plan B’.

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