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12 March 2019

Edelman Brexit Bulletin: Breakthrough?

Brexit, Government Affairs

Having made a late dash to Strasbourg to carry out last-ditch negotiations with Jean-Claude Juncker in person last night, the PM emerged at 10:45pm UK time to herald the changes and urge MPs to support her “improved” deal.

It means she has something new to put to MPs today (Tuesday) as she seeks to overturn the historic defeat on her previous deal – but the key question will be whether Attorney General Geoffrey Cox agrees the changes go far enough for him to change his legal advice around the status of the Northern Ireland backstop, and in turn stand a chance of winning over the DUP and Tory backbench Brexiteers.

The signs were mixed as her de facto Deputy David Lidington gave a late-night statement in the Commons, with some senior Brexiteers pledging to study the detail but others saying the changes don’t go far enough. The DUP Leader Arleen Foster said it would carefully analyse the changes before setting out their position, with the views of the Attorney General and DUP likely to be key in determining the position of many Brexiter Conservatives on the backbenches.

More drama will follow today – and possibly in the next two days if the deal is voted down and we move to votes on rejecting a no-deal Brexit, and the possible extension of Article 50.

What has happened?

  • Prime Minister Theresa May secured “legally binding’ changes to her Brexit deal around the troublesome Northern Ireland backstop.
  • These are in three parts: Firstly, a joint legally-binding instrument relating to the Withdrawal Agreement which makes clear either side can leave the backstop if the other side is acting in bad faith, by applying for independent arbitration. This gives legal effect to assurances set out in a letter from Jean-Claude Juncker and Donald Tusk earlier this year. Secondly, a joint statement on the Political Declaration around the future UK-EU relationship which contains a legal commitment on replacing the backstop with alternative arrangements by 2020. And thirdly, the UK will table a unilateral declaration that if the backstop does come into force and discussions on a future relationship break down, the UK can take measures to “disapply” the backstop.
  • Jean-Claude Juncker warned the EU will not look again at the deal beyond these changes, dating: “there will be no third chance” and telling MPs it is “this deal or Brexit might not happen at all”.
  • This morning the Environment Secretary and Leave campaigner, Michael Gove, urged MPs that today was “make your mind up time” as he made the case that the PM had secured a “legally binding declaration” which delivered in the changes to the backstop demanded by MPs. Echoing the Prime Minister, Gove laid out what may be the Government’s closing argument that failure to back the deal could see “Brexit delayed and diluted”.

Why does it matter?

  • Theresa May can legitimately claim to have secured legal changes to her original deal, and can now put a changed version to a vote. 
  • Despite this, she has not managed to re-open the Withdrawal Agreement itself – which many critics had set as the bar, and the PM had indicated she was seeking.
  • The motion for MPs to vote on says “the legally binding joint instrument… reduces the risk the UK could be deliberately held in the Northern Irish backstop indefinitely” – rather than eliminating the risk altogether. 
  • MPs who rejected her first deal now have a choice: to use these changes as a ladder to climb down and support the deal, or reject it again and open the Pandora’s Box of votes which pave the way either for a no-deal Brexit, or extending Britain’s membership of the EU beyond March 29.

What happens next?

  • MPs will vote on the new deal on Tuesday night.
  • Ahead of that, Attorney General Geoffrey Cox will give his legal verdict on the changes, expected before 11:30am which will be critical to whether it can secure support. He may be summoned before MPs in the Commons to make a statement and face questions.
  • The DUP – who prop up Theresa May’s Government via the confidence and supply deal – will also give their verdict, which again will be crucial to its chances of passing. This is expected to come alongside the verdict of the Conservative Brexiter “Star Chamber” of eight lawyers who will give their verdict on just how binding they believe the PMs additions really are.
  • Ireland will give its official view, amid suggestions it will play down the changes. 
  • If the deal is rejected, MPs will vote the following day on whether to pursue a no-deal Brexit. If that is rejected, they will vote on whether to extend Article 50.

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