Vidya Ram

Relentless pandemonium over Brexit

Vidya Ram | Updated on March 31, 2019

Parting pain Northern Ireland is the Achiles’ heel of Brexit   -  /iStockphoto

With the April 12 deadline looming and Theresa May offering to step down, the UK is running out of time to draw up a Plan B

Despite the repeated insistence of British Prime Minister Theresa May, on countless occasions over the past two years, that one thing was for certain: Britain would leave the EU at 11 p.m. (local time) on March 29, 2019. That deadline passed by with pretty much no clarity on the direction of Brexit — and angry protests by pro-Brexiteers, gridlocking parts of central London.

The Prime Minister’s pledge to step down to make way for a successor in time for the next phase of negotiations (that is on the kind of future relations the UK wants to have with the EU) was not enough to shift opinion in her favour, as her controversial withdrawal deal was defeated by a margin of 58.

While she lost by a tighter margin than the two previous defeats (148 and 230) it’s unlikely that there will be many more MPs — from across the political spectrum — who are willing to change their minds.

While some “Brexiteers” from the Conservative party — notably Boris Johnson — Britain’s former and controversial Foreign Secretary — and Jacob Rees-Mogg, the chair of the right-wing European Research Group (ERG) of MPs — decided that the prospect of a new Prime Minister assuaged their concerns about the backstop (in the withdrawal agreement to prevent the development of a hard border on the island of Ireland) other purists won’t change their mind under any circumstances, unless the backstop is got rid of entirely, or can be exited by Britain unilaterally.

The EU has made clear that this is not up for negotiation. Among those who continue to oppose it is Suella Braverman MP, a Goan-origin Conservative, who is also a prominent member of the ERG. “The simple truth is that this deal is not Brexit,” she told MPs during a debate earlier this year. “The deal continues our subjugation to EU laws during the implementation period (transition period) and the backstop,” she told MPs earlier this year.

Priti Patel, another former cabinet minister, also continued to oppose the deal. The deal would “deny the British people and our Parliament the sovereign right to choose our future and be in control of our destiny,” she told the House of Commons on Friday.

Differences to the fore

While the ERG and the Democratic Unionist Party of Northern Ireland had often been lumped together as opponents of the deal on the basis of the backstop — the differences between them became very apparent in the last few days, as the assurances that swayed the likes of Rees-Mogg and Johnson had little impact on them.

This is because they fear that entering the backstop (customs union arrangements the UK would enter into if talks on future relations broke down) could risk the unity of the United Kingdom, by potentially keeping Northern Ireland aligned with the Republic of Ireland (and hence the EU) while Great Britain (i.e. England, Scotland and Wales) went a different course.

So strong is that sentiment that they’ve indicated they’d be willing to keep the UK in the EU if necessary to avoid that happening. “‘I would stay in the European Union and remain rather than risk Northern Ireland’s position. That’s how strongly I feel about the union,’ Nigel Dodds, MP and the DUP’s Deputy Leader, told the BBC’s Newsnight programme earlier this week, ahead of the vote.

The Labour Party has throughout opposed the withdrawal agreement as a bad deal for Britain. It is particularly scathing about the political declaration on future relations that accompanies the text of the withdrawal treaty because of its limited nature and its failure to offer adequate protections on workers’ rights and the environment.

Labour’s stand

They would also prefer that the UK was in a customs union with the EU, and closely aligned with the single market. While some of its MPs — particularly those in leave-voting constituencies — have been going against the party line, and voting with May, her decision to step down early is unlikely to persuade any of those who would be wavering to change their mind.

This is because with the race to become May’s successor now open, there’s a chance that a real-hardliner like Johnson could become Prime Minister, taking the future relationship in a different direction altogether. Johnson — who is the most popular among Conservative party members to take over from May though he struggles to convince enough of his parliamentary colleagues — is among those to have been pushing for the loosest of ties with the EU in the future and isn’t averse to crashing out without a deal at all if need be.

All in all this means that May’s deal has gone about as far as it can go — a point acknowledged by her response to the defeat on Friday. She promised to continue to push for an orderly exit that respected the results of the referendum.

Significantly, she did not refer to the 2017 Conservative Manifesto that had pledged to take the UK out of the customs union and single market, suggesting she knows that customs union membership in particular will be one of the options on the table now.

This option is favoured by many in business and sectors such as auto, who believe it would be the least disruptive to supply chains, and trade with the EU.

Remaining in the customs union was one of the options that fared the best in the indicative voting process held on Thursday, in which MPs rejected all the options on the table.

This was defeated by just a margin of 8 MPs, and with just 536 of 625 MPs voting on it, it’s possible that in the future more could swing in favour. On Monday, the indicative votes’ architects are hoping to bring a shorter list of options back to parliament in the hope they’ll pick a course forward.

There’s speculation that the Prime Minister could then put the winner of that voting process in a run off with her own deal in the hope of persuading MPs to pick a winner.

But with MPs so very divided across the spectrum, it’s very unclear if one option will win, which could make a general election pretty much the only way of breaking the impasse.

What is clear is that contrary to the glacial speed at which things have been happening in the last few months — as the Prime Minister has shot down calls for negotiation and compromise and insisted it’s her deal or nothing — big things must now happen very quickly.

Britain has till April 12 to come up with a plan B if it’s to stand a reasonable chance of getting more time from the EU, who are unsurprisingly growing increasingly frustrated with the process.

Published on March 31, 2019

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