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27 February 2019

Edelman Brexit Bulletin: Delay Inching Closer?

Brexit, Government Affairs

EU flag

Tonight, the possibility of a delay to Brexit day inched closer as Parliament gave its overwhelming backing to the option of postponing the cliff-edge if the Prime Minister’s deal fails to pass in March. Meanwhile, Labour’s alternative deal was rejected by MPs, so the Party’s official policy is poised to shift to formal calls for a second referendum.

Already this evening senior Labour figures were at odds over whether a referendum is now the Party’s top priority, or whether they will attempt to push for their own Brexit plan one more time. Expect this to play out in the coming days.

See below Edelman PA team’s analysis of what happened, what it means and what comes next.

What happened:

  • Following Mrs May’s dramatic concession yesterday of a parliamentary vote on extending Article 50 in order to avoid a no deal Brexit on 29 March, much of the significance was drained from today’s votes on the motion setting out the Government’s next steps on Brexit.
  • Labour’s amendment calling for the Government to adopt its alternative Brexit deal involving a permanent Customs Union and close alignment with the Single Market was defeated by 323 votes to 240. As per the Party’s formal position set out on Monday, this now means Labour is formally committed to pushing for a public vote on Brexit. The exact details remain to be confirmed, but Shadow Brexit Minister Matthew Pennycook tweeted that this would “include the option of staying in the EU”.
  • The Government had indicated they would accept an amendment by Labour’s Yvette Cooper and the Tories’ Oliver Letwin formally setting out the Prime Minister’s commitments on the opportunity of extending Article 50. However, some Tory Brexiteers unexpectedly objected and forced a formal vote, which the Government won by a huge majority – 502 votes to 20.
  • But the EU would have to unanimously back any extension, and French President Macron tonight said that any delay would have to be in pursuit of something specific.
  • MPs unanimously accepted an amendment from Conservative MP Alberto Costa which would see the UK adopt, in full, the section of the Withdrawal Agreement relating to EU citizens’ rights, even under a no deal scenario. Mr Costa had earlier resigned as a ministerial aide in order to table the amendment. 
  • Finally, MPs rejected an SNP amendment which sought to rule out no deal regardless of the specified exit date by 324 to 288 votes.

What it means: 

  • With Labour now committed to backing some form of second referendum, debate within the Party will focus on three issues: 1) the exact nature of the “public vote” and the exact question and options on the ballot, 2) whether this will be enough to prevent further defections to the Independent Group, and 3) how many Labour MPs from Leave-backing seats will oppose the new position.
  • Already this evening, senior Labour figures have taken different public positions: some claiming the Party is full square behind a referendum at the next votes, for others this is premature and they’ll try to push a ‘Labour deal’ again. Expect this to play out further in the coming days. 
  • Given the opportunity to do so, MPs overwhelmingly approved the Prime Minister’s new position of giving MPs the option of extending Article 50, although 20 Brexiteer MPs voted against, while a considerable number abstained, as did the DUP.
  • This illustrates the extent to which any extension will be deeply unpopular within Tory ranks and serves as a reminder that Mrs May will likely need to win over a significant number of Labour rebels to ultimately pass her Brexit deal.

What happens next?

  • Today’s events do not change the sequencing that the Prime Minister set out in her statement yesterday.
  • MPs will vote again on the Prime Minister’s Brexit deal by 12 March at the latest. In the meantime, the Government will continue to seek legal assurances around the Northern Irish backstop in an effort to gain the backing of Brexiteer MPs and the DUP.
  • If MPs reject that deal, then on the following day, March 13 at the latest, MPs will be given a choice of endorsing a motion to leave the EU without a deal on 29 March.
  • If MPs reject the option of a no deal Brexit, then on the following day, March 14 at the latest, they will vote on the option of a time-limited extension to Article 50, with the exact details of that extension to be set out by the Government on the day.
  • If MPs vote to extend Article 50, the Prime Minister will then formally request an extension from the EU – any extension requires the unanimous consent of the remaining 27 member states – and amend UK legislation specifying the day of exit as being 29 March 2019. 
  • Those backing a second referendum will look to use one of these votes to force the issue, and the Labour leadership have committed to either supporting a backbench amendment to this effect or tabling one of their own.

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