Now for the Hard Part: Two Months On

Now for the Hard Part: Two Months On

January 2019 | Politics

The UK Parliament finally rejected the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement. The consequences have been relatively minor so far, but expect that to change next week.

It finally happened, if a little later than expected. Theresa May's Brexit deal was voted down on Tuesday by a record margin, marking the latest in a series of defeats on the biggest issue of the day. The 230 vote defeat in the meaningful vote caught everyone by surprise but was actually only a few votes bigger than forecast. The government were hoping that many opponents of the deal would abstain, but few did leading to a crushing humiliation for the Prime Minister that had surprisingly tame consequences.

On Wednesday, Jeremy Corbyn finally tabled his long threatened motion of no confidence, which was duly won by the government with DUP support. Its only real effect was to remind the feuding Tory factions that there is one thing they can agree upon - their utter loathing of Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour left. Michael Gove gave a barnstorming speech at the end of the confidence debate that probably did more to harm Theresa May's standing than the vote itself.

In fact, the Prime Minister had a far better week than the Leader of the Opposition despite events in Parliament. She ended the week on the front foot, doing what the public expected of her. Namely, meeting party leaders and senior MPs in an effort to find a deal that Parliament could agree on. Many in Westminster wondered whether the attempt to find common ground was serious. Her track record isn't great in this area, but simply trying to find a compromise makes her look as though she is in control of events.


Contrast that with Jeremy Corbyn, who refused to meet Theresa May unless she ruled out No Deal first. This was hugely popular with his base, but not with anybody else. For one thing, she can't actually rule out No Deal because that requires EU consent. The only way to prevent No Deal unilaterally is to revoke Article 50, which is legally viable but politically impossible. That Corbyn followed his refusal to meet the prime minister with a promise to table more votes of no confidence in the next few months gives the impression he cares more about his own position than the wellbeing of the country. By doing so, he is playing partisan games during a sense of crisis and genuine anger at the handling of Brexit by parliament. This is a serious mistake that could cost him the next election. The claim that a Labour Government is the only solution to Brexit, has annoyed even many previously loyal Labour supporters. Until now, Labour have done well to convince both sides of the Brexit debate that he is on their side, and the leadership's actions this week were intended to perpetuate that stance. Many Labour members want a new referendum, but this is opposed by the leadership on the grounds it would alienate the voters they need to win a majority at the next election. Instead, they have outlined six tests by which they will judge a Brexit deal, and have kept open their options on how those tests can be met. It is reasonably certain that no deal negotiated by a Conservative government will ever satisfy them though.

The best known of Labour's six tests is the desire to remain in the Customs Union. This has the side effect of removing the need for the Irish Backstop - the politically toxic part of the Withdrawal Agreement. Without the Backstop, it is likely that the withdrawal agreement could pass parliament, but the Irish government won't agree to remove it unless some other method of guaranteeing an open Irish border is found. In practice, that means a customs union. Theresa May is coming under pressure from the remainer wing of the Conservative party to concede on a customs union, even though it would annoy Brexiteers who see leaving the Customs Union as one of the biggest benefits of Brexit. It is easy to see the Prime Minister threatening her party with a Customs Union unless they pass a deal. It is less clear whether she could follow through with such a threat. There are concerns that the Tory right could form a new party if they don't get their way on Brexit, but this worry probably isn't justified.

Parliament Takes Control?

To pass a withdrawal agreement, the government either needs the support of their own no deal supporting backbenchers or Labour's second referendum supporting backbenchers. To Theresa May compromising with the later is fundamentally unacceptable and compromising with the former requires changes the EU is unlikely to give. She may budge on one or the other if no alternative is found by late March but not before. However, there are growing indications that events will make such a compromise unnecessary. The scale of the defeat means that both sides are seriously considering extending Article 50 for the first time. The EU are being firm in public, but in private are rumoured to be willing to extend Article 50 until after May's European elections, but only if the extra time would help reach an agreement. It will happen anyway because the UK just won't be ready to leave the EU in March with or without a deal. There are a number of bills that need to pass before that can happen and not enough time to do it.

In the interim, Theresa May will see if she can get concessions on the backstop from the EU. Given the current parliamentary arithmetic and the balance of opinion in her party this is the only choice she has. It is unlikely she will get anything that will satisfy the hardline ERG, let alone the DUP. However, switching government policy to either No Deal or a Second referendum would split her party. Whilst she is doing this, MPs will continue their efforts to make No Deal impossible. The PM will speak out against them, but do nothing to actually stop them. She doesn't want no deal either, because the UK isn't ready for it.

Whatever happens, events may soon be out of the Prime Minister's hands. Next week will see Parliament vote on all the available options in response to a government motion. All of them are expected to be defeated. There is no majority in Parliament for any solution to Brexit, including a second referendum. There is a majority against no deal though, and a Yvette Cooper proposal requiring the government to extend Article 50 by the end of February in the event of no deal is likely to pass. More radical attempts to usurp parliamentary procedures so that MPs can suspend Article 50 will fail due to opposition from the Labour frontbench, who are concerned it will set a precedent that can be used against the next Labour government. Any Brexit related votes can only pass if they have the support of either the Labour leadership or the Tory Leadership. Labour will support an extension to article 50, but not anything negotiated by the current government.

General Election?

The biggest wildcard is the government's likely reaction if next week's vote fails to deliver an acceptable way forward. If Parliament can't agree on a path out of the current impasse, then an election will be called in the hope a new House of Commons will pass the same Withdrawal Agreement that was defeated last week. Any election will likely return much the same result as the last one. It does have the advantage of not splitting the Tory Party though, unlike a second referendum. The only problem the Prime Minister will have is getting the agreement of her own party, who still have nightmares of the last UK general election when they ran the worst election campaign in living memory. It is entirely possible she will be ousted by her party as their condition for agreeing to an election that they'd rather avoid.

In the long run, even a small change in the parliamentary arithmetic would have significant consequences. Currently, the government relies on the support of the DUP for their majority. The DUP have indicated their support is conditional on the withdrawal agreement not passing. A few extra Tory seats at a general election would remove the need to pander to the DUP, opening the way for an agreement that erects trade barriers between Northern Ireland and Great Britain. The original version of the backstop was supposed to be Northern Ireland only, but this was changed to a UK wide backstop at the last minute to appease the DUP and their allies. A few less Tory seats, on the other hand, would result in a minority Labour government with SNP support and a very different Brexit deal. Labour's Brexit red lines are very different from the Tory ones and would result in a much softer Brexit deal that would annoy leavers but easily pass parliament. In either situation, the way would be clear for the UK to negotiate a future relationship and revised withdrawal agreement that could command parliamentary support.

Written by Alan Chatfield