In the hopes of some, tonight was meant to be the night Parliament took control of Brexit and ended the looming spectre of a no-deal exit from the European Union. Indeed, the only reason MPs were voting on anything this evening was because the Remain-supporting Tory Dominic Grieve won support to force the pace on a Government Plan B after Theresa May’s historic defeat on her deal. But opponents of the Prime Minister’s approach discovered tonight what she has known for some time – that winning approval for anything in this divided Parliament is extremely difficult. Labour MP Yvette Cooper’s legally-binding attempt to force an extension to the UK’s March 29 exit date without a deal was defeated, as were a number of other MP-led bids to make the PM change course. A symbolic amendment stating that Parliament “rejects” the UK leaving without a deal was passed, but the lack of cheers in the Commons for the result showed what a Pyrrhic victory it was.
Instead, the Prime Minister surprisingly won backing for a newly-set-out Plan B of re-opening negotiations with the EU to seek “legally-binding” changes to the Northern Ireland backstop – something she consistently said wasn’t possible until this morning – as a unifying amendment tabled by Tory backbench shop steward Sir Graham Brady (and supported by the Government) passed. The problem is the EU have said this is simply not an option. Nevertheless, that is what the PM will seek and she will now attempt to renegotiate two years’ of work with just two months left until Britain leaves the EU – currently without a deal. Mrs May can at least claim that with compromise from the EU she can see, at last, a path to a deal that could pass. The PM told the Commons tonight she doesn’t want a no-deal exit. The only problem: without EU compromise the default position is exactly that.The clock keeps ticking, and the lack of certainty continues.
By 317 votes to 301, MPs backed an amendment by 1922 Committee Chairman Graham Brady which calls for the Northern Ireland backstop to be replaced with “alternative arrangements” to avoid a hard border. The amendment itself does not specify what these alternative amendments should be, but the so-called ‘Malthouse compromise’ unveiled earlier today – an intra-Tory party accord between Brexiteer and Remainer MPs – fills in some of the detail. This compromise, combined with May’s assurance that she would seek to re-open the Withdrawal Agreement to seek legally-binding changes, allowed the ERG group of Brexiteer MPs to back the amendment, having previously indicated they would oppose it on the grounds it did not go far enough.
MPs also narrowly voted 318-310 in favour of Dame Caroline Spelman’s amendment which rejected the option of the UK leaving the EU without a Withdrawal Agreement and Political Declaration setting out the framework for the future relationship. This amendment was more symbolic, allowing MPs to register their opposition to no deal in principle, but without creating a mechanism that could have helped to avoid that outcome.
That came after they rejected the Cooper amendment by 321 votes to 298. The amendment would have the created a mechanism to allow MPs to force the Government to seek an extension of Article 50, potentially delaying Brexit beyond March 29.
MPs also rejected the Grieve Amendment by 321 votes to 301, which would have seen MPs, after a week of debate, hold a series of indicative votes on alternative Brexit plans to that of the Government.
After the votes, Theresa May said it had shown MPs would support a deal with changes to the Northern Ireland backstop and will now try to achieve that. She also offered renewed talks to MPs like Caroline Spelman who are opposed to no deal – an offer which Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn surprisingly accepted, having refused to take part in cross-party discussions over the past fortnight.
Within minutes, both European Council President Donald Tusk and Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar reiterated Europe’s line that the Withdrawal Agreement is not open for renegotiation – causing an immediate impasse.
Why does it matter?
With just two months to go until the UK leaves the EU – currently without a deal – Brexit negotiations are essentially back at square one. By insisting that the Withdrawal Agreement be re-opened to sort the backstop, the PM has torn up her own deal.
The PM is also seeking to achieve something that the EU say is impossible. A major tussle between a sovereign UK Parliament demanding change and a hitherto united European Union insisting no change is possible now awaits.
Even if the EU does agree to look at the backstop again, the task of finding a solution within days to a problem which has been unsolvable for two years will be difficult to say the least.
Confidence in the Brexit outcome will continue to wane. The pound fell 2/3 of a cent against the dollar when the Cooper amendment was defeated, as hopes that Parliament could take no deal off the table evaporated for the time being.
What happens next?
The Prime Minister has pledged to bring back a revised deal to the Commons by February 13. She faces a very busy period of diplomacy in the run up to Valentine’s Day as she attempts to re-draw the Northern Ireland backstop.
If she hasn’t succeeded in the timeframe, she will table an amendable motion – similar to today’s – for debate and vote on February 14.
But even if she does get changes to the backstop, there is no guarantee Brexiteer Tories and the DUP will support the new arrangement. They have only given her licence to try for a new deal – not a blanket assurance they will back it.
Meanwhile talks about what deal would win Parliamentary support – and so avoid no deal – will continue with those MPs who are desperate to stop the UK leaving on WTO terms.