As Westminster lurches toward an unprecedented and historic 24 hours, and MPs prepare to vote on Mrs May’s Withdrawal Agreement with the EU, Edelman’s London Public Affairs team look at what’s been happening, why it matters, and what could come after.
Yesterday the Prime Minister was filmed extolling the virtues of her Withdrawal Agreement against a backdrop of hundreds and hundreds of mugs! Today she’s competing with, believe it or not, national pothole day. Given the Prime Minister looks set to drive into the mother of all potholes, and one many see as entirely of her own making, you have to wonder what Theresa May needs to do to catch a break in life. Before Christmas the Prime Minister cancelled this vote because she recognised she wasn’t going to win. She talked instead about securing legally binding assurances around the controversial Northern Irish backstop. Six weeks on, and little has changed. Yesterday she claimed voting against her deal risked “letting the British people down”, as she asked MPs to give that deal a “second chance”. She sought to assuage doubters by telling the House additional assurances from the EU offered the UK ‘legal force’, something most MPs dismiss as mere flannel. By this evening the Commons will almost certainly have voted down Mrs May’s deal. The PM claims that might just scupper Brexit entirely. Many MPs think that’s a great idea, others are horrified by the prospect of failing to deliver on the will of the majority of voters.
What has happened?
The Prime Minister finished addressing MPs late yesterday, in a last-ditch attempt to win support for her Brexit plan, urging Parliamentarians to give the deal a “second chance”. Earlier in the day she’d chosen Brexit backing Stoke, home of the pottery mug, as the backdrop for her final push to sell the deal.
Her visit to Stoke followed publication of an exchange of letters between the UK Government and the EU, in which the EU gave a “firm commitment” to strike a comprehensive trade agreement as soon as possible, so obviating the need for ever activating the Northern Irish backstop.
The PM announced additional EU assurances around the backstop: first that post-Brexit trade talks could begin as soon as Parliament accepted her deal; and second that Northern Ireland would have a veto over the application of any new laws from Brussels that would be introduced in the unlikely event that the backstop ever came into effect.
The PM insisted that the EU assurances around the backstop had “legal effect in international law”, citing the opinion of the Attorney General, the UK’s chief legal officer.
The Prime Minister nonetheless conceded that the letter and EU assurances “do not go as far as some MPs would like” and admitted that she had been unable to secure EU agreement to place a time limit on the backstop. However, she cautioned against attempts to reopen formal negotiations, warning that to do so could result in the EU seeking additional changes that would favour Brussels over London.
At the same time a man called Johnson was resigning. Only this one isn’t related to the famous one. Little known Government whip Gareth Johnson said he was unable to support the Prime Minister’s Brexit deal. Significant? Only in that a man whose job as a whip is to persuade MPs to back the Prime Ministers deal couldn’t be bothered to support that deal himself.
And finally, it emerged yesterday that backbench pro-European Conservatives were ready to table legislation which if successful would give MPs unprecedented power to determine the business of Parliament – overturning one of the historic prerogatives of any Government. In other words, if the PM’s deal was rejected, and if no other agreement between the EU and the UK was forthcoming, the Government would be compelled by Parliament to repeal Article 50 to prevent a no deal Brexit.
Why does it matter?
The Prime Minister conceded that the EU assurances around the Northern Irish backstop were unlikely to satisfy the demands of many of her own MPs. (Reminder – the backstop is the provision that would prevent a hard border on the island of Ireland in the event of the UK and EU failing to conclude a trade agreement after Brexit.) But doing so was likely an impossible task anyway. Brexiteer Tory MPs and the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) – the small Northern Irish Unionist Party who the Conservatives rely on for their Parliamentary majority – have made clear that nothing short of the wholesale scrapping of the backstop would suffice. The DUP dismissed the assurances as “meaningless” and “foolish”.
The PM has also been unable to win over support from more pro-European MPs who she had hoped might back her deal to prevent a no deal Brexit. Instead, these MPs appear to believe that they can trigger alternative Parliamentary mechanisms to prevent a no deal exit.
This means that the Prime Minister is, as has long been predicted, set to lose the crunch vote tonight.
What happens next?
MPs will vote on a motion to approve the Government’s Brexit deal this evening. However, a number of amendments to that motion have also been tabled, and if MPs back any of these amendments then they would vote on the amended version of the Government’s motion.
The key amendments to look out for are those sponsored by the Chair of the Northern Ireland Affairs Select Committee, Conservative Andrew Murrison. These amendments would force the Government to introduce legislation enshrining that the Northern Irish Assembly would have a veto over any new rules the EU sought to introduce if the backstop ever came into effect. It would also give Parliament the ability to decide if the UK should enter the backstop or instead extend the transition period, had the UK and the EU not agreed a final trade deal by the end of 2020. Crucially, it would also oblige the government to seek further assurances from the EU around the temporary nature of the Northern Irish backstop, including that it last for no longer than one year, something the EU has always opposed.
This morning the Chair of the Brexit Select Committee announced that he was withdrawing his amendment which would have seen MPs reject both the PMs deal and a no deal Brexit in order to allow a clean vote on the PMs deal, and it is possible that other MPs similarly decide not to push their amendments to a vote for this reason.
There have been reports that Conservative Brexiteers might have been prepared to back the PM’s deal if certain opposition amendments were withdrawn and the DUP abstained. These fanciful reports have been forcefully slapped down by Brexiteers who have insisted that they will not back Mrs May’s deal tomorrow as they have not seen the legal changes they have demanded, changes aimed at scrapping the backstop.
And so, the PM looks likely to lose tonight’s vote, with the great unknown being the scale of defeat.
What could come after that?
If by some miracle MPs unexpectedly vote for the Prime Minister’s Brexit deal, then Mrs May is home and dry. The UK-EU Withdrawal Agreement Treaty would become UK law, and we would leave the EU as planned on March 29th. Crucially nothing would change, and we’d enter a 20-month transition period, during which goods would still flow unhindered, planes would still fly and the both sides would seek to conclude a future trade deal.
However, if, as is expected, the PM is defeated she will have just three sitting days – by Monday 21 January – in which to present MPs with her Plan B. Very few people – whether Cabinet colleagues or many of her senior advisors, have any idea what plan B looks like. Smart politics – in that it prevents leaks, speculation or the undermining of her current plan – or simply a case that no one knows about plan B because there isn’t one?
MPs are already investigating alternative mechanisms by which to force the government’s hand, most notably an audacious attempt led by Tory MP Nick Boles to temporarily end the government’s power to set the agenda for Parliamentary business. Boles is a backer of a so-called Norway style deal where the UK leaves but maintains the closest possible ties to the EU. Boles’ plan would give MPs six weeks to formulate an alternative Brexit approach and could see the government forced to seek an extension of Article 50, delaying Brexit beyond March 29th.
If the EU rejected such an extension, the Boles plan would then force the government to unilaterally revoke Article 50 altogether, potentially cancelling Brexit to prevent a no deal. Worryingly for Mrs May it is understood that the Commons Speaker John Bercow supports these moves. Last week he made it abundantly clear that he is willing to push the rules of the House of Commons to the furthest extent possible to give MPs every opportunity to shape the Brexit process.
In the likely event that the PM is defeated tonight, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn will probably seek to table a motion of no confidence in the Government in an effort to force an early General Election. The scale of the Government defeat (150 is currently in vogue but much could yet change on the basis of amendments) may dictate the timing of such a move from Corbyn. He will only want to pursue such a course however if he can be reasonably certain of victory. That is far from a certainty. However, if Corbyn were to table a no confidence motion immediately tonight, then we would likely see a vote on that motion of no confidence within 24 hours. These are indeed uncertain times.