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05 April 2019

67: Brexit – like a bridge over troubled water

A month has passed since our last post, and a lot of troubled water has flowed under Westminster Bridge.

‘Exit Day’ – 29 March – has been and gone and another one – 12 April – looms. It remains unclear whether that day will see the UK leave the EU on a ‘No Deal’ basis, under the Government’s Deal, or not at all.

UK politics, while not quite in tatters, certainly looks frayed around the edges.

When you’re weary…

Between 12 March and 14 March, the House of Commons worked through the three days of debates and votes we described last time:

  • 12 March: The Government’s Brexit Deal came back to the Commons (Meaningful Vote 2 or MV2) and was rejected again – this time by 149 votes, down from 230 first time round.
  • 13 March: MPs voted twice to reject a ‘no deal’ Brexit. First, by 312 votes to 308, in any circumstances. Second, by 321 votes to 278, rejecting a no deal exit on 29 March, but accepting that it could happen later.
  • 14 March: MPs voted to ask the EU for an extension to the Brexit process beyond 29 March by 413 votes to 202, a government majority of 211.

That left the PM with no option but to seek an extension.

Feeling small…

The PM wrote to Donald Tusk on 20 March, requesting an Article 50 extension until 30 June 2019, stating she intended to hold another Commons vote on the Withdrawal Agreement as soon as possible and that the extension would be required to pass legislation to implement it.

But the EU rejected that proposal. Instead, at a European Council meeting on 21 March, the leaders of the EU27 member states agreed to an extension only until 22 May 2019 (that date was chosen so the UK would not take part in EU Parliament elections), and only if the Withdrawal Agreement were approved by the House of Commons by 29 March. If it were not approved by 29 March 2019, the European Council agreed to an extension until 12 April 2019 only.

The UK accepted that – it didn’t really have a choice. On 27 March, the House of Commons approved the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018 (Exit Day) (Amendment) Regulations 2019 to change ‘exit day’ in UK law.

…and friends just can’t be found

The PM considered bringing the whole Deal back for another vote (MV3). But the Speaker ruled that she could not do so unless the motion which she put before the House had significantly changed, citing a ‘strong and longstanding convention’ going back to 1604 which prevented the government (originally, of course, the monarch) from repeatedly asking Parliament to vote on the same issue.

So the PM called a vote on the Withdrawal Agreement only, and not the political declaration on the UK / EU future relationship. This got round the Speaker’s objection, while still complying with the terms of the EC’s extension, but it wasn’t a third ‘meaningful vote’ (MV3) within the terms of EUWA s13 – because that requires a motion on both the Withdrawal agreement and ‘the framework for the future relationship’.

It looked like MPs would reject that too, so the PM took the extraordinary step of committing to step down as Tory leader if her Withdrawal Agreement was passed. Suddenly, a number of Tories previously opposed to her deal came on side (something about a vacancy in the leadership causing Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg to reappraise their position). But any optimism proved short lived: the DUP, immune to the appeal of the Cabinet table, remained opposed: the Withdrawal Agreement contained the NI backstop, which had the potential to treat Northern Ireland differently from the rest of the UK. Through the prism of unionism, nothing had changed.

The PM’s political gamble was to no avail. On 29 March – the original ‘Brexit Day’ – the Government lost the vote on the Withdrawal Agreement by 344 votes to 286, a margin of 58, and means the UK has missed an EU deadline to delay Brexit to 22 May and leave with a deal.

Your time has come to shine?

Frustrated by the government’s inability to find a way forward, backbench MPs, led by Sir Oliver Letwin ‘took control’ of proceedings in Parliament – the government normally is responsible for tabling Parliamentary business – in order to hold a series of indicative votes and try to ascertain if there was a Commons majority for any particular way forward.

On 27 March, the House of Commons voted on eight motions setting out alternatives to the Prime Minister’s deal for the UK’s withdrawal from the EU. No motion gained a majority. After rejecting the Withdrawal Agreement for a third time on 29 March, the House voted again on four motions on 1 April. Again, no motion was able to attract the support of a majority of MPs, although Ken Clarke’s proposal that the UK remain in the single market and customs union lost by just three votes. Details of all these votes are given here, and there is some interesting analysis of why no compromise has been reached by the IfG here – chiefly, Remainer MPs are as bad at compromise as Leavers.
On 3 April, the Commons passed the European Union (Withdrawal) (No.5) Bill, which (if it clears the Lords and becomes law) would give Parliament power to instruct the Prime Minister to seek a further extension to avoid a ‘no deal’ exit. The passage of this Bill is extraordinary in a number of ways:

  • its purpose, to direct the PM to bring a motion to the House on the Government’s conduct of international negotiations, is unprecedented;
  • it is backbencher’s Bill, which rarely become law;
  • the vote to allow the Bill to proceed passed by only one vote (312 to 311), another procedural vote was tied (310 each), requiring the Speaker to make a casting vote for the first time in 26 years;
  • it then cleared all its Commons stages in a single day, with MPs passing it at third reading by only one vote (313 to 312).

Sail on silver girl

Meanwhile, on 2 April, after a seven hour Cabinet session (and another reminder about the significant impact of a ‘no deal’ Brexit), the PM made a televised statement in which she indicated a bold change of tack: to try to reach a compromise with Labour. Naturally, Pro-Brexit Tory MPs – including those who recently indicated they would now back the Withdrawal Agreement (if the PM resigned) – expressed outrage. The PM:

  • reiterated that leaving the EU with a deal was the best solution and indicated that she would seek a further extension of Article 50, ‘one that is as short as possible and which ends when we pass a deal.’ It remains to be seen whether the EC will agree to this;
  • rejected the efforts of MPs: ‘Despite the best efforts of MPs, the process that the House of Commons has tried to lead has not come up with an answer’;
  • offered to try to agree a compromise Brexit plan with Labour – one that included the Withdrawal Agreement – but opening the door to a softer Brexit than envisioned in the current Political Declaration; and
  • said that, if no agreement with Labour were possible, MPs would be given a vote on a series of Brexit options, with the government committing to enact whichever idea won support.

Jeremy Corbyn responded by saying he was ‘very happy’ to take part in the compromise talks, and he accepted the need for a spirit of cross-party cooperation. Talks began on 3 April and continue at the time of writing.

It seems the unlikeliest of alliances. On the one hand, why would Labour ‘prop up’ what is seen as a Tory Brexit? And wouldn’t the PM simply baulk at Labour’s demands for a permanent customs union (notwithstanding the DUP may support it) or a further public vote (which she has long refused)? Or could May, who campaigned (extremely quietly) for Remain before ending up as Prime Minister responsible for delivering Brexit, and Corbyn, a Leaver in charge of a largely Remain party, manage – somehow – to build a bridge over troubled water?

 ‘When you’re weary, feeling small…When times get rough and friends just can’t be found, Like a bridge over troubled water I will lay me down…Sail on silver girl, sail on by…Your time has come to shine’ (Simon and Garfunkel, Bridge Over Troubled Water)

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