BREXIT UPDATE 19: The Riddle of the Sphinx: Guest Post by Deborah Maccoby

March 29, 2019

In Uncategorized


“If I were to compare Great Britain to a sphinx, the sphinx would be an open book by comparison”[1] the President of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, told the European Parliament in Strasbourg yesterday (Wednesday March 27).  Events yesterday, dramatic though they were, increased the sense of confusion created by the Sphinx of Brexit.   The House of Commons took control of the Brexit process but failed to reach a majority on any of the outcomes that it discussed.  And the Maybot promised to resign if MPs would only pass her deal, half of which is due to come before Parliament tomorrow for a third time.


Even though all the eight motions that were voted on were defeated, yesterday’s debate was an extremely useful exercise, in that MPs were able to express and listen to many different Brexit schools of thought, on an equal basis and in an atmosphere that, for the House of Commons, was respectful and courteous (though it reverted to the usual uproar towards the end).  More motions (subject to the decision of the Speaker) will be debated on Monday (in the likely event that the Maybot’s truncated deal fails).

The Speaker selected eight motions, chosen to reflect the spectrum of Brexit opinion. The Conservatives did not impose any whip (ie order/instruction), in order to avoid more government resignations in order to vote for the motions; but Labour imposed a whip on voting in favour of three motions, with recommendations on two others (to vote for and to abstain).


1) No Deal.  This was put forward by the Conservative MP John Baron.  Predictably, it was massively defeated, by 240 votes — the Ayes: 160; the Noes: 400 – coming in sixth (in terms of size of defeat).

2) Common Market: 2.0 or “Norway Plus”.   This motion was tabled by the Conservative MP Nick Boles, with support from Labour as well as Tory MPs.  The “Norway Plus” plan seeks to build on the current relationship between the EU and Norway.  In his speech proposing this motion, Nick Boles pointed out that 60 to 70 per cent of the Norwegian people had wanted a “half-way house” — not fully within the EU but linked to it.  According to Norway Plus, the UK would reapply to join the European Free Trade Association (EFTA), which it left when it joined the European Economic Community (EEC) in 1973; the UK would join the “European Economic Area (EAA) pillar” of EFTA, so the UK would not leave the EAA and would remain in the Single Market.  This would mean freedom of movement (though with conditions attached).  The Labour leadership recommended its MPs to vote for this amendment (recommendation, not whipping).  The Labour leaders clearly had doubts about the freedom of movement aspect.   This motion was defeated, though not massively – it lost by 95 votes, coming in at fourth place:  the Ayes: 188; the Noes 283.

3)  Corbyn’s alternative Brexit plan.  Again, this was defeated, but not massively; it did better than Norway Plus, losing by 70 votes and coming in at third place: the Ayes: 237; the Noes: 307.

4) A customs union as a minimum building-block.  This was tabled by the veteran “Remainer” Conservative MP and former Cabinet Minister Ken Clarke.  It called on the government to negotiate “a permanent and comprehensive UK-wide customs union with the European Union in any Brexit deal”.  The motion was backed by Sir Oliver Letwin and also by the “centrist” Labour MPs Yvette Cooper and Hilary Benn.  In his speech proposing the motion, Clarke said that the situation demanded an obvious compromise:  giving up the political union with the EU, but keeping the economic union, by remaining in a customs union and in the Single Market.  He argued that this would begin to bring the divided UK together – to start to reconcile the 48 per cent who voted Remain with the 52 per cent who voted Leave.  He pointed out that most Eurosceptics have always called for leaving the EU but staying in the Common Market (as the European Economic Community (EEC) used to be called).

In a speech proposing Labour’s alternative plan, the Shadow Brexit Secretary, Sir Keir Starmer, in a very helpful survey of the other motions, said that a customs union on its own was not enough; it had to be part of a wider package.  But he added that Labour was whipping its MPs to vote for Sir Kenneth’s motion as a minimum part of any deal.

Ken Clarke’s motion proved to be the most popular with MPs.  It was defeated, but only by eight votes: the Ayes: 264; the Noes 272.

5) Revoking Article 50.  This was put forward by the Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP) MP Joanna Cherry, with support from all 11 members of the breakaway Independent Group (TIG), plus the Conservative MP (and former Attorney-General) Dominic Grieve.  This motion proposed that, if the UK gets within two days of leaving without a deal, MPs will vote on whether or not to accept No Deal.  If they reject it –as of course they will — the government will revoke Article 50.  Labour recommended its members to abstain on this motion. It was defeated, but not by as much as might have been expected; it lost by 109 votes, coming in at fifth place: the Ayes: 184; the Noes: 293.

6) Confirmatory vote/referendum.  This was tabled by the veteran Labour MP Dame Margaret Beckett.  According to this proposal, Parliament cannot ratify or implement any Withdrawal Agreement or Political Declaration on the Future Relationship “unless and until they have been approved by the people of the UK in a confirmatory public vote”.  This motion did not specify whether or not a Remain option would be on the ballot, so it is not the same as the second referendum called for by the People’s Vote Campaign – though the relative success of this motion might owe something to the massive People’s Vote march on Saturday, so it could be that this demonstration is having more effect than I thought would be the case.   Labour whipped its MPs to vote for this.  It was defeated by only 27 votes: the Ayes: 268; the Noes 295, losing by only 27 votes and coming in second.

7) EFTA/EAA.  This plan was similar to Nick Boles’s Norway Plus, but much more of a hard-line Conservative Brexiteer motion.  It was put forward by the Conservative MP George Eustice and backed by the Conservative MP and former Minister Nicky Morgan and the head of the Brexit Delivery Group, Simon Hart.  It called for membership of EFTA and the EAA, but rejected any customs union after Brexit, seeking “alternative arrangements” as a solution to the Irish border question.   It was massively defeated, by 312 votes — the Ayes: 65; the Noes: 377 — coming in eighth and last.

8) Malthouse Compromise Plan B.  Tabled by the Conservative MP Marcus Fysh, this was essentially Plan B of the Malthouse Compromise, which I mentioned in Brexit Update 6 (on the Valentine’s Day Debate).   The Malthouse Compromise was massively defeated in the March 13 Commons debate on No Deal (as described in Brexit Update 12), but refuses to die.  I described Plan B in Brexit Update 6 as follows: “The EU would extend the transition period for a year.   The UK would pay its agreed financial contributions and honour its commitments on the right of EU citizens living in Britain.  After the year’s extension to prepare for its departure, the UK would leave the EU on World Trade Organisation terms on December 31 2021 or else negotiate a different deal”.  Yesterday’s version of this was defeated by 283 votes – the Ayes: 139; the Noes: 422 – coming in seventh.

To sum up: although it is true that no majority emerged from this debate for any course of action, what has come out is support for a customs union and for the idea of an economic but not political union with the EU; and also for a referendum on any deal.


At the end of the debate, the Brexit Secretary, Stephen Barclay, said that the failure to find a majority for any course of action strengthened the view that the Prime Minister’s deal was the best option.  But, at the same time that the debate was taking place yesterday afternoon, the Maybot was meeting the influential backbench Conservative 1922 Committee.  This Committee includes “the men in grey suits” who are said to inform a Conservative Prime Minister that the time has come when he or she must resign.  It turns out that rumours over the weekend that the Maybot has been offering to resign if Conservative MPs will back her deal (as described in Brexit Update 17) are true.  She made to the 1922 Committee a last desperate proposal to self-destruct after May 22 (which would be the new departure date if the deal passes), if only her life’s mission, with which she has been programmed – to deliver Brexit – can first be accomplished.[2]  She appears to have implied that, if the deal failed if/when it was put to the Commons for a third time, she would stay on – but it is very hard to see how she can survive if the deal is rejected for a third time.

It has now become clear that the vote will indeed be held before 11pm tomorrow, March 29.  This is the day on which the UK was due to leave the EU; and the European Council gave the Maybot till the end of this week (ie to midnight of Friday March 29) to pass her deal in order to extend the leaving date to May 22: a technical extension in order to pass the necessary legislation.  If the deal fails, the leaving date is April 12, unless a long extension can be agreed that will mean that the UK takes part in the European Parliament elections.

But of course the Speaker has ruled that the deal cannot come back to the House of Commons without “significant change”.  It was always likely that the Maybot would find a way round this.  The manoeuvre that she has found is to separate the Withdrawal Agreement from the Political Declaration on the Future Relationship; only the first will be debated and voted on tomorrow.  The EU has indicated that, if the Withdrawal Agreement on its own is passed by the House of Commons, this will be enough for the leaving date to be extended to May 22.

Does the Withdrawal Agreement stand any chance of passing tomorrow?  According to Laura Kuenssberg of the BBC, there are signs that “many Eurosceptic MPs are ready to say ‘yes’”, seeing this as their only chance to avoid a long extension and a “soft” Brexit; but even so “it looks as though Theresa May is heading for another loss”. [3] The Maybot is hoping to win over Labour MPs who represent leave-voting constituencies, but is unlikely to get many to vote for her deal.  The Labour leadership has whipped all Labour MPs to vote against the Withdrawal Agreement, which  Corbyn calls a “blindfold Brexit”.  Boris Johnson has now said, after May announced she will resign if the Withdrawal Agreement passes, that he will vote for it.  Jacob Rees-Mogg says he will vote for it if the DUP abstains.  But the DUP have made it clear that they will vote against.  Some commentators have said the DUP are likely to cave at the last minute, especially if offered financial inducements – but, as I wrote in Brexit Update 14, fanatical Protestant fundamentalists though they are, the DUP at least have the virtue – unlike Boris Johnson — of sincere belief in their principles.  They have made it clear that the union with the UK comes first with them; so they cannot vote for the backstop or even abstain.[4]

The next Brexit Update will discuss the debate and vote on the Withdrawal Deal that are due to take place tomorrow, March 29, and consider what is likely to happen next.