On 15 January 2019, following a total of nine days of debate (four before and five after Christmas), the Government’s proposed withdrawal agreement was rejected by the House of Commons by 432 votes to 202.
‘Don’t look like they’re buying it’
This is the biggest ever Government defeat, with 118 Tories rebelling, and comes despite the PM delaying the ‘meaningful vote’ (originally timetabled for 11 December) in order to obtain further assurances from the EU on the withdrawal agreement, and particularly on the temporary nature of the Irish backstop, to try to secure support for her deal.
Following the defeat, the Opposition immediately tabled a vote of no confidence in the Government in the specific terms required by the Fixed Term Parliaments Act. Had the Government lost that vote, a general election would almost certainly have followed. But the Government won by 326 votes to 302: the Tory party once again put aside its differences on Brexit in order ensure it remained in Government, and the DUP honoured its ‘confidence and supply’ agreement, backing the Government notwithstanding its opposition to the Government’s Brexit deal. Had the DUP voted against the PM, she would have lost by one.
‘Arms crossed, screw faced’
The PM, speaking after the vote, said that she would ‘continue to work to deliver on the solemn promise to the people of this country to deliver on the result of the referendum and leave the European Union’. In order to try to find a way forward, she invited leaders of all parties to have individual meetings with her on the way ahead for Brexit and asked them to approach this with a ‘constructive spirit’ in order to ‘find solutions that are negotiable and command sufficient support in this House.’
But is she really listening? It is clear that the PM does not expect to shift her own position. This morning, her official spokesman said that the PM’s ‘red lines’ – leaving the Single Market and Customs Union; no hard border in Ireland; no border in the Irish Sea – remained in place:
‘The PM has set out over the course of many months now what she believes the British people voted for, and what she believes is necessary to honour the referendum. She stands by those principles … The PM is absolutely clear on the importance of having an independent trade policy in order to honour the result of the referendum … The ability for the UK to reach out throughout the world and strike its own trade deals is an important element of taking back control.’
On extending article 50, he said:
‘We do not wish to do it.’
But there are splits within her Cabinet and her party on what to do now: Work and Pensions Secretary Amber Rudd said ‘everything should be on the table’, including the possibility of pursuing a Customs Union with the EU, while Brexiteers are encouraging her to move the other way – to ditch her deal entirely, and leave either on a ‘no deal’ basis or seek to negotiate a free trade agreement. (Presumably, they continue to believe that, if that were adopted as Government policy, the Tories and the DUP would rally behind it, despite having failed to unseat her as leader running effectively the same argument.)
Initial reports of the PM’s conversations confirm a lack of compromise. Caroline Lucas, Green Party MP, met the PM this morning, and said following her conversation:
‘She still thinks it’s going to be possible to tweak this deal sufficiently to get the 230 MPs that voted against it to swing behind it – I remain pretty sceptical about that.’
‘Stop this crazy talk’
One option which many are keen to take off the table is the prospect of leaving the EU without a deal.
Jeremy Corbyn has declined to take part in talks with the PM unless she rules out a no-deal Brexit, claiming she is running down the clock, with the intention of forcing MPs into backing her option when a no-deal Brexit is imminent. He has declared her deal ‘dead’ and urged her to ‘ditch her red lines and get serious’ about alternatives, including his favoured option of staying in the Customs Union.
Nicola Sturgeon and Ian Blackford have set out the SNP’s three key demands: ruling out a no-deal exit from the EU; an immediate application to the EU to ‘stop the clock’ by extending the article 50 deadline well beyond 29 March; and bringing forward legislation to prepare for a second EU referendum (which the SNP would seek to amend to include a ‘four-nation lock’ so that the UK could only leave if England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland each voted for it).
Ruling out ‘no deal’ appears to be supported by the Chancellor, who reportedly sought to reassure the heads of some of the UK’s biggest businesses (including Tesco, BP, Siemens, Scottish Power and Amazon UK) that a backbench bill (the EU Withdrawal No.2 Bill) would, if passed, force ministers to extend article 50 (but only to the end of 2019), acting as a ‘sort of ultimate backstop if the work the Government is doing in seeking to find a way forward fails to deliver’.
It’s been received wisdom for a long time that there is no majority in Parliament for no deal – we may soon see if that is the case.
The PM will now come back to Parliament on Monday 21 January to make a statement about what happens next, and table a motion (as required following Dominic Grieve’s amendment to the Brexit business motion). A debate, effectively on Brexit Plan B, will then be held on Tuesday 29 January, and would last a full day.
If Plan B is rejected, the PM could resign (unlikely) or face another vote of no confidence (although there is, at this stage, little to suggest that Tories or the DUP will break ranks and bring down the Government). Labour may move to support a second referendum on the basis that Parliament has failed to break the deadlock.
We are really no closer to finding a solution and exit day – 29 March 2019 – is just ten weeks away.
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‘I said stop this crazy talk … [but] they don’t look like they’re buying it and this is making me nervous, arms crossed, screw faced like I’m trying it’ (Plan B, She Said)