Brexit deadlock continues as May gets ready to seek third vote

Vidya Ram London | Updated on March 29, 2019

File Photo of the British union flag and the EU flag seen flying near the Houses of Parliament, in London, Britain.   -  Reuters

While the Speaker of the House of Commons has allowed the motion to be put to MPs on Friday, it remains very uncertain whether Prime Minister Theresa May will command enough support.

The British government is set to make a last-ditch attempt to avoid a longer delay to Brexit, or crashing out of the EU by putting part of its controversial withdrawal deal to MPs in a vote on Friday.

While the Speaker of the House of Commons has allowed the motion to be put to MPs on Friday, it remains very uncertain whether Prime Minister Theresa May will command enough support. Her pledge earlier this week to make way for a successor in time for the next phase of Brexit negotiations does not appear to have persuaded enough MPs to back her deal, while Labour has warned that the motion being proposed would amount the “blindest of blind Brexits,” and has made clear it will oppose the motion.

This is because the motion being put to MPs only involves a vote on part of the total withdrawal deal. MPs will vote on the withdrawal treaty itself — the expansive formal legal document that covers how the UK will exit the EU — but not on the accompanying, and substantially shorter political declaration on future relations. They are able to divide the motion in this way because the EU’s offer of a delay till May 22 only requires the withdrawal agreement to be approved this week.

While Labour’s objections have largely centred on the political declaration, the party remains concerned that the lack of clarity on future relations could mean that hard Brexiteers take control of the process in the future. Their concerns are exacerbated by the prospect of a hard-line Brexiteer — such as Boris Johnson — replacing May in the next phase of negotiations.

Uncertainty continues 

Uncertainty has continued to pervade the Brexit process as MPs failed to back any of 8 alternative options in a vote held on Wednesday night. This combined with the uncertainty over the withdrawal deal leaves Britain in a highly uncertain position, with no route ahead appearing to command support within Parliament, prompting speculation that the only way to break the impasse could be a general election.

Wednesday was seismic day in British politics as May played what had been seen as her trump card, before backbench Conservative MPs. “I know there is a desire for a new approach – and new leadership – in the second phase of the Brexit negotiations – and I won’t stand in the way of that,” she told MPs of the Conservatives backbench 1922 committee on Wednesday afternoon. The implication was that were her deal to pass and Britain leave the EU on May 22, she would resign soon after that.

While it did indeed impact some — such as Johnson who said he’d now back the deal if someone else could lead the negotiations on the future relationship — others within the party remained firm. 

Influential Brexiteer Jacob Rees-Mogg, after initially hinting he could back her, pulled back on this after the Democratic Unionist Party of Northern Ireland were adamant that they weren’t for turning. They have indicated that they are not even willing to abstain but will vote against the deal. 

“Given the fact that the necessary changes we seek to the backstop have not been secured between the Government and the European Union, and the remaining and ongoing strategic risk that Northern Ireland would be trapped in backstop arrangements at the end of the implementation period, we will not be supporting the Government if they table a fresh meaningful vote,” the DUP said in a statement.

Boost for PM

However, May’s hand has been somewhat strengthened by the failure of Parliament to identify a route ahead. In historic proceedings MPs seized control of the parliamentary timetable on Wednesday to debate and vote on a series of options ranging from a no-deal exit, customs union membership, a confirmatory public vote on any deal, and an upgraded version of Norway’s relationship with the EU. 

However, in a ballot paper vote, in all cases the “Nos” outnumbered the “Yeses” — with the one pushing for a confirmatory vote commanding the highest support (268 in favour and 295 against).

The second most popular one (264 to 272) would keep the UK within the EU customs union. One of the bigger surprises of the evening was the lack of popularity for the idea that has come to be known as “Common Market 2.0” – that would keep Britain in the European Free Trade Association, and in an effective customs union and single market with the EU (requiring the UK to keep freedom of movement with the EU).

With not all MPs voting on these options (there are 650 MPs in the Commons in total) there are hopes that a second round on Monday could result in greater clarity, if MPs were faced with a shorter list of options.

Oliver Letwin, the Conservative MP who led the indicative vote initiative admitted that while the failure of all options was a “very great disappointment,” he had predicted this would be the case and harboured the hope that Monday could provide more clarity.

Still, it is far from guaranteed that any option will command a clear majority, and with the two Brexit deadlines fast approaching (May 22 if May’s deal is accepted and April 12 to come up with alternative options if it is not) a longer extension and a general election are been seen as increasingly likely outcomes.

Published on March 28, 2019

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