Brexit: Light at the end of the tunnel or an oncoming train?
With last night’s parliamentary majority for her deal – subject to replacing the Irish border backstop – Theresa May bought a respite from Conservative party infighting over Brexit. This came at the price of a looming crisis with the EU, who immediately ruled out re-opening the Withdrawal Agreement. The likelihood is that both her party’s unity and her majority will dissolve in the face of the negotiating realities. The stable House of Commons majority she claimed last night probably only exists for a softer version of her deal – which risks splitting her party. Her choice remains between party unity and leaving with a deal.
Can Theresa May secure a ‘better deal’?
Mrs May claimed an immediate mandate to re-negotiate her deal with Brussels. There’s a problem: the talks are finished. Michel Barnier and the European Commission have no further mandate to negotiate with the UK unless the EU27 leaders agree to re-open the Withdrawal Agreement. Talks to agree additional text could be sanctioned by the 27 – a codicil with legal effect explaining the temporary nature of the backstop, for example – but this would be a clarification, not a re-writing of the deal.
In order to even get such talks started, Mrs May will have to spell out what she means by “alternative arrangements” to replace the backstop. But by doing so she will fracture her party’s fragile unity. The DUP or the hard Brexiteers insist that the backstop must go, now or soon – through an end date or unilateral UK right of exit. Neither is likely to be negotiable. By opening the way to no deal, such a stance would alarm Conservative soft Brexiteers, making government defeats over alternative softer Brexit options more likely when Parliament debates this again on 14 February. Last night’s majority is likely to be fleeting, and to dissolve once No10 define it in precise negotiating proposals, never mind in negotiations with the EU.
EU leaders have therefore little incentive to begin a risky re-negotiation of the backstop, which could shatter their own unity, and be seen as abandoning a smaller Member State, Ireland. Even this might not satisfy the hard Brexiteers. And the EU has an alternative; they know that there is a latent Commons majority for a softer Brexit, and a majority against no deal.
What happens if Mrs May doesn’t secure a new deal by 13 February?
The Prime Minister has a hard deadline to secure changes: she is committed to table a motion in Parliament asking for support for a new deal by 13 February. That is not long enough for the kind of fundamental re-negotiation the DUP and hard Brexiteers claim No10 has promised them. They will have a ready-made excuse to vote against Mrs May’s deal, unless the EU position collapses. For some of the hard Brexiteers, at least, the offer of support for a new deal is a purely tactical manoeuvre; they want a no deal Brexit and hope that a narrative of ‘we offered a deal, but the EU was too intransigent’ will help bring the Commons round to support crashing out in the end.
If Mrs May cannot sustain a majority for any tweaked deal, are there the Parliamentary votes to pass anything else? The government motion will be amendable. A debate, and votes on any amendments selected by the Speaker, will take place on 14 February. At that point we are likely to see new amendments to ‘rule out no deal’ (by forcing the government to seek an extension of the Article 50 process) and to test the will of the Commons on substantive alternatives to Mrs May’s deal.
Labour’s position moves centre stage
The position of the Labour leadership will be crucial in securing a majority for any alternatives. Jeremy Corbyn will meet Mrs May today, and faces a dilemma: if Labour sets out its price for supporting a deal – for example a permanent customs union and ‘dynamically’ following EU rules on worker protections and environmental standards – it has the chance to split the Tories and avoid sharing the blame for a no deal Brexit. But any choice splits Labour too; the cracks were showing in last night’s votes, with several Labour MPs in Leave-supporting seats rebelling against the party’s whip to back the government. At the other extreme, there are a substantial number of Labour MPs holding out for a second referendum. Corbyn may soon have to make his choice, and it could be decisive; but he will first have to be seen not to obstruct a new referendum.
There is probably a majority to pass a deal – but not a government to implement it
Unless either the EU or the hard Brexiteers and DUP give up on their fundamental priorities, Theresa May will, after 14 February, face the same basic choice: to keep her party together, or to deliver a deal. If she is not prepared to front up a softer version of her deal, with concessions towards Labour, which could command a stable majority in Parliament, she will probably only have the option of seeking an election to win a majority for her deal. That choice will become unavoidable if and when the House of Commons passes any amendment for a softer Brexit.
By Lexington’s Senior Counsel Paul McGrade
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