Good morning from Westminster where we should today have been counting down the hours to the Commons vote on Mrs May’s Brexit deal. Unless you’ve been hiding out on Mars, you won’t be surprised to learn things took another dramatic turn yesterday afternoon, and, as a result, the countdown was halted at about the point where mission control usually says, “T minus 10 – main engines start!”.
Remember that old English nursery rhyme, you know the one – “The grand old Duke of York, he had ten thousand men, he marched them up to the top of the hill, and he marched them down again.” Well Mrs May yesterday conspired to do her very best impression of the Duke.
For weeks the Prime Minister has been at pains to point out her Brexit deal is the only deal in town, no-one will get a better deal, and any MP who doesn’t vote for it is instead voting for uncertainty and either a car crash exit from the EU, or no Brexit at all.
Only at 330pm yesterday afternoon she stood up in the House of Commons and confirmed she was marching everyone down the hill again, by pulling today’s Commons vote on her deal. Just four hours earlier her official spokesman had been officially briefing, at the official daily briefing, that the vote was officially going ahead! Only it wasn’t. It turns out that those MPs whom she accused of endangering the country were not in fact allowed a vote at all – at least not for a while yet.
Why, because faced with a certain and massive defeat she decided her best chance of surviving as Prime Minister and getting a deal through was to buy herself time. It’s some gamble. She will now go back to the EU today and in the days and possibly weeks ahead, to seek further assurances that the UK won’t be locked into the controversial Northern Irish backstop arrangement and with it a UK wide customs union, for years to come.
She must know that the EU won’t alter the actual Withdrawal Agreement, so she is staking all on there being some ‘compromise’ re the legal language (probably non-binding) around the Irish border and the backstop arrangement – she calls it ‘assurance’ or ‘reassurance’, critics call it ‘a fudge’, opponents call it ‘worthless’ or ‘pointless’.
This is the tactic we had thought she’d adopt only if and when she’d had and lost today’s vote – i.e. go back to the EU, tell them “look I’m in trouble here, help me”, ‘tinker’ a bit, claim a grand compromise, have another vote, and hope it’s enough.
She decided instead to buy time, ‘tinker’ a bit, and have just one vote – probably in January – with the clock ticking and markets wobbling, and hope all that uncertainty will focus MPs minds and persuade them to vote for a deal that most of them believe is already holed below the waterline.
Any amount of tinkering won’t be enough for her Democratic Unionist Party allies whose support keeps her government afloat, or for hard Brexiteers. They want the backstop junked entirely. But it may be enough to persuade MPs looking for a reason to support her deal, opposition Labour MPs included.
Perversely she may have bought herself time, but in doing so she has almost certainly increased the chances of a challenge to her leadership from within her own party. No-one knows where that, let alone Brexit will now end. Here’s the team’s guide to what’s happened, why it matters and what’s next?
Theresa May yesterday heeded the advice of her Chief Whip and other Cabinet colleagues to defer the vote on her Brexit deal. The Government had been on track to lose heavily, with around 100 Conservative MPs declaring their intention to vote against.
In her statement to MPs, May strongly defended the overall deal, including the principle of the contentious Irish border backstop, but said she had listened to the widespread and deep concerns about its current design, above all its potential to become a permanent arrangement.
She committed to securing additional guarantees from the EU ahead of this week’s European Council summit that the backstop would not apply indefinitely, as well as looking at how MPs could be given more of a say over its potential activation. In addition, she announced that the Government would be further stepping up its no deal contingency planning.
Donald Tusk, the President of the European Council, tweeted on Monday that “We will not renegotiate the deal, including the backstop, but we are ready to discuss how to facilitate UK ratification.” This was followed, on Wednesday morning, by reports that the European Commission believed the deal was “too fresh” to be changed.
Conservative Brexiter backbenchers and the DUP, upon who the Government rely on for their majority, have made clear that they do not believe the PM is likely to secure changes that will satisfy them, with both making clear that unless the Government can “junk the backstop” entirely, there is no chance of the PM gaining their backing. This morning leaders of the Tory European Research Group, Jacob Rees-Mogg and Steve Baker, have both repeated their calls on fellow Tories to submit their letters calling for Mrs May to be removed.
Why it matters?
The decision to pull the vote removes what little certainty we had on the Brexit deal timetable, with serious implications for businesses engaged in no deal planning. We now do not know when – or even if – MPs will vote on May’s agreement.
This confirms the extent of the paralysis within Government and Parliament as to how to proceed with Brexit: there is no majority for May’s deal as it stands, but neither does there appear to be a majority for any other form of Brexit, or for any mechanism to unblock the logjam (such as a snap election or a second referendum).
It is worth considering whether, beyond her immediate survival, there is a broader strategy. Some might conclude that May’s approach is to run down the clock, resulting in increased market uncertainty and business pressure, to get MPs to back her deal.
Ultimately, unless a majority of MPs can coalesce around an alternative, the UK remains on course to leave without a deal on 29 March 2019. Notwithstanding today’s ECJ ruling that the UK can withdraw Article 50, this remains the default outcome.
What happens next?
Today the Prime Minister is meeting European Leaders as part of a plan to build political support for her changes in capitals across the continent. She has begun this process by traveling to the Netherlands for breakfast on Tuesday with the Dutch Prime Minister, and will then head to Berlin for talks with the German Chancellor Angela Merkel, before travelling to Brussels for talks with EU leaders. She then heads back to London this evening before PMQs tomorrow and European Council on Thursday.
The aim will be to secure better terms, although she refused to state whether this would entail changes to the underlying agreement or additional clarifications or guarantees around the backstop. The former will be very hard to agree with the EU, while the latter is unlikely to be sufficient to address the scale of concerns raised by MPs.
Critics on all sides of the House must also consider their next steps. Tory backbench opponents could launch another concerted attempt to unseat her by gathering the 48 letters required to test support for her leadership. Labour (or the SNP) must decide if now is the time to force a motion of no confidence in the Government. Eyes will fall on the DUP and the future of their confidence and supply arrangement with the Government.
In addition to the political uncertainty surrounding the future of the Prime Minister, there is also real procedural uncertainty around the question of whether she is reopening the Brexit negotiations or merely seeking an add-on to the existing deal.
If the negotiations are being reopened, the EU Withdrawal Act sets a deadline of 21 January 2019 for the UK and EU to reach an agreement. If this proves impossible, the Government must make its intentions clear by the 26 January 2019.
If the PM is simply seeking a political add-on to the existing deal, then the date of the parliamentary vote may not be bound by law, with some suggestions that technically, this could take place as late as 28 March 2019.
However, in the Commons today the Prime Minister said she was conscious of the date of the 21 January, indicating she would aim to hold the vote by that point.
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