You have to give Theresa May credit for being clever, or at least more clever than the various MPs that were braying that Parliament would take control of Brexit yesterday.
No such thing happened, not even close. For starters, all Parliament was voting on were motions, and motions are not legislation, so none of them could even deliver on something that was also supposed to occur yesterday, that of “taking a no-deal Brexit off the table,” although they could have started that ball rolling.
Instead, two of five motions passed, and one of them, the so-called Brady amendment, was backed by the Government. It read:
To require that the Northern Ireland backstop be “replaced with alternative arrangements to avoid a hard border” while supporting the notion of leaving the EU with a deal and therefore supporting the Withdrawal Agreement subject to this change.
The second was:
To reject the UK leaving the European Union “without a Withdrawal Agreement and a Framework for the Future Relationship”
Note that Yvette Cooper’s amendment to debate her bill which would delay Brexit and Dominic Grieve’s to allow Parliament six days to debate amendable motions were both defeated.
By backing the first amendment, the Government is running out the clock by at least another ten days and more likely, two weeks. May knows full well that the EU isn’t going to change its repeatedly-reaffirmed position that it is done renegotiating the Withdrawal Agreement. It has indicated it would entertain negotiating a markedly different deal as part of the “future relationship” if the UK were to relent on its major red lines. But the idea that the EU is going to concede on the Irish backstop because the UK is having a hissy fit is a non-starter.
Depressingly, some UK press outlets are enabling the delusion that the EU will tremble in its boots in the face of the UK’s wrath. For instance:
Parliament sets May on Brexit collision course with EU Financial Times
‘If there’s no deal you won’t get a penny!’ Brexit minister warns that UK will REFUSE to pay £39bn divorce bill unless the EU agrees to PM’s new backstop plan as she prepares for Brussels showdown Daily Mail
At least none of them had “handbag” in the title.
And the EU, predictably and promptly, reiterated its “no”. Donald Tusk’s spokesman immediately issued a statement that included, “”The backstop is part of the Withdrawal Agreement, and the Withdrawal Agreement is not open for re-negotiation.” From Cyprus, Emmanuel Macron said:
As the European Council in December clearly indicated, the Withdrawal Agreement negotiated between the UK and EU is the best agreement possible.
It is not renegotiable.
The EU Parliament’s Brexit coordinator, Guy Verhofstadt, also warned any UK changes wouldn’t be approved:
Guy Verhofstadt told The Independent that the EU’s legislature, which has to approve any deal, would not consent to a “watered down” agreement and that the controversial Irish backstop could not be ditched.
So May remains in charge, and by wasting more time with another pointless round of meetings on the Continent, she will have decisively curtailed the choices to her deal or no deal. As Richard Murphy pointed out:
So, the Commons has voted.
It would seem that it has rejected No Deal, because one non-binding amendment that suggested this was passed.
But it has rejected May’s Deal.
And it has rejected creating the time to find a better deal.
And it has rejected staying.
So the Commons has voted, yet again, for wishful thinking and nothing concrete of benefit to anyone.
What can I see happening now?
First, there is no chance of a People’s Vote: if the Commons cannot vote to extend Article 50 they could not get the majority required for a second vote. I call that option dead.
For the record, so too is staying: I do not think there is anything like a majority for that.
So there are only two known options.
One is the EU’s deal, which was once called May’s deal, but can’t be any more as she has apparently abandoned it.
And the other is No Deal.
The only place I differ with Murphy is that May is depicting her apparent retreat from her deal as accepting the will of Parliament. From Richard North:
…it looks as if the prime minister is playing a passive submissive game. Her ratification motion has been rejected, so she has quite deliberately gone to parliament for instructions. With her marching orders in her pocket, she will now obediently toddle off to Brussels, where she will receive a polite but firm rejection to her request to renegotiate the backstop.
She has absolutely nothing to lose by doing this. She will be following in the wake of Canute when he commanded the tide to retreat, to demonstrate to his courtiers the limits of power. Mrs May will return calmly to parliament and tell MPs how sorry she is. “I tried my best”, she will say, “but the man from the European Council, he say ‘no'”.
She might be able to sugar the pill with a few cosmetic changes to the political declaration, but her basic message to parliament will be: “over to you”. The same choice then awaits them: the Withdrawal Agreement or a no-deal. But it will be parliament that makes the decision. She is but the obedient servant, doing her best to execute parliament’s will…
Even as the clock ticks down to oblivion, Mrs May can afford to bide her time. There will still be a few delusional MPs – like Alexander (aka Boris) Johnson – who believe that the EU will cave in, but my guess is that the majority are beginning to see the writing on the wall.
Even though North is much closer to the mark, he does not appear to appreciate fully the depth of denialism in the UK political classes. Displaying too much faith in the idea of the plucky underdog pulling out a win at the last minute, and perhaps also harboring more than a bit of sexism, far too many even now seem to believe that a markedly better deal could still be had. Jeremy Corbyn has been going on in this vein in op-eds and interviews for months, and he still seems to hold this view. The vote today, which broke largely along party lines, says he’s far from alone. Recall how many times last year the Tories were insisting that the UK could get “Norway plus” or “Canada plus plus plus” and refused to abandon that view despite repeated clear rebuffs by the EU.
Interesting that the Guardian headline in the link has now changed to “Brexit: EU dismisses Tory compromise plan as unworkable.” That didn’t take long. [The original headline: Brexit: Tories unite to back compromise giving May extra time].
As I choked on my (gluten-free) cereal this morning, while looking at the original Guardian story, I reflected that this development is only the logical end-product of a political process which has been obsessed with the purely UK dimension of Brexit, as though the EU27 were just bystanders, waiting patiently to learn what the UK was prepared to accept. It’s one way in which a crisis typically develops at the very end: internal differences become so obsessively dominant, that the whole purpose of (in this case) the negotiations becomes a secondary issue. Indeed, it’s now clear that Brexit was not, ultimately, an issue between the UK and the EU, but an internal issue within the UK. I don’t mean by that that, as some commentators have suggested, Brexit is an issue which fundamentally divides the country. On its own, successive polls have shown that it’s really not a priority for most people. But it served as a detonator for a whole series of unresolved issues to do with power and wealth in the country, which are now about to explode.
I have been saying for some time (with Lambert and Richard Smith among my witnesses, although I should have stuck my neck out on the blog) that the crisis will hit no sooner than mid-February. That is when MPs will no longer be able to pretend that they have options besides the ones May set forth when she brought her deal back in November: her deal, no deal, or no Brexit.
And by mid-February, it’s too late to toss May out without guaranteeing a no deal departure. Remember there are 14 calendar days for Parliament to reverse itself and pass a confidence motion. Otherwise, the general election process starts, and that’s a minimum of 25 business days. There would be no Government to push through amending the Withdrawal Act to remove its hard coding of the Brexit date. Any MP can nix a private bill (one not sponsored by the Government) and you can be sure an Ultra would do that. And even though the EU has said it would allow the UK to push back the Brexit date in the event of a general election, the UK, meaning the Government, has to ask formally. Can it so so procedurally after a no confidence vote? Keep in mind that the Ultras would do everything in their power to jam the controls and assure a no deal.
Another possibility is Grieve and the speaker John Bercow trying more Parliamentary gambits, but Parliament remains too divided to implement any other idea, even if they managed to get their hands on the steering wheel. Richard Murphy is right: if they can’t even back an extension, they can’t muster the votes for a second referendum. And revoking A50 without a referendum? Fuggedaboudit.
In a few week, we’ll have a better sense if sentiment is moving towards May’s deal or no deal. And remember, more denial and squabbling over unicorns increases the odds of no deal.