BREXIT UPDATE 2: Guest Post by Deborah Maccoby

January 28, 2019

In Uncategorized

What Happened Next  (and a look back at Remain vs. Leave)

Brexit Update Two

In the first Brexit update, our story began and ended on January 15, the date of the government’s catastrophic defeat over its EU withdrawal deal.  What happened next?  What has happened in the past 13 days?

Theresa May, having been massively defeated over the Brexit deal which she had spent the past two and a half years negotiating and on which she had staked her personal credibility, might have been expected to resign.  But in her speech immediately after the vote, she made it clear that she was not going to do so.  She did, however, make some acknowledgment of the scale of her defeat by inviting Jeremy Corbyn, the Leader of the Labour Party, the main opposition party, to table a vote of no confidence in her government – a vote which, she said, would be debated and voted on the following day.

Corbyn responded by tabling a vote of no confidence in the government – the first step towards forcing a General Election.  If a government loses a vote of no confidence it must resign.  The usual protocol is then that the Queen asks the Leader of the Opposition to attempt to form a government.  If he/she cannot do so within two weeks, a General Election is called.  In theory, Corbyn could become Prime Minister without a General Election; but it is almost certain that, if the government fell, he would seek one.

At the September 2018 Labour Party Conference, a resolution on the Party’s Brexit policy was passed unanimously.  It ran in part:

“Should Parliament vote down a Tory Brexit deal or the talks end in no-deal, Conference believes this would constitute a loss of confidence in the Government.  In these circumstances, the best outcome for the country is an immediate General Election that can sweep the Tories from power.  If we cannot get a general election, Labour must support all options remaining on the table, including campaigning for a public vote.”

So in tabling a vote of no confidence, intended to force a General Election, Corbyn was acting according to this resolution.  He had been under pressure from Remain supporters (who include the leaders of the smaller opposition parties and Labour right-wingers who have never reconciled themselves to Corbyn’s leadership) to go all out for a “public vote”, which is another term for a second referendum that could reverse Brexit altogether.   Remainers cannot hope to bring about a second referendum without the backing of the Labour Party leadership.

Corbyn is known personally to be a supporter of what is known as “Lexit”, the left-wing form of Brexit that views the EU as a neoliberal project that favours the rich.  Nonetheless during the referendum campaign Corbyn adopted a platform of “Remain and Reform”.  He was, however, criticised by Labour right-wingers for not campaigning for Remain with sufficient enthusiasm; indeed, some of his opponents blame him for Brexit.

Corbyn has said publicly that, if he wins a General Election, he will continue with Brexit and negotiate a different deal.  At the beginning of January, the mainstream press (which is on the whole still anti-Corbyn), citing a YouGov poll, attempted to make out that the left-wing Labour leadership was at odds with the Labour membership, which, they claimed, wanted a second referendum.  But the pro-Corbyn website Skwawkbox pointed out that the poll actually showed that a majority of the membership supports the current Labour strategy. [1] Though it is true that a majority of Labour Party members supports Remain, many Labour MPs represent constituencies, particularly outside London and especially in the North of England, that backed Leave in the referendum (on the whole, middle-class urban liberals voted Remain; the impoverished, non-urban working class, especially in the North, voted Leave).

Corbyn came under pressure also from Remainers to table the vote of no confidence earlier, after May postponed the December 11 vote on her deal.  It has been argued by pro-Corbyn commentators such as Skwawkbox that the Remainers knew that the vote of no confidence was certain to be defeated at that time and would strengthen May; they wanted this to happen, so that Labour would abandon its push for a General Election and move directly to support for a second referendum.[2]  In any case, in waiting till the deal was actually voted on and defeated, Corbyn was again acting strictly according to the resolution.

To return — after this detour into the mind-numbing complexities of Remainers versus Leavers — to  January 16, the day when Labour’s vote of no confidence in the government was debated and voted upon.

If the deal had miraculously passed, the DUP would have cancelled its “confidence and supply” arrangement with the government, so the government would actually have fallen had the deal passed.   But now that it had failed, the DUP was willing to vote in support of the government, which it has no wish to bring down.  Corbyn is regarded with suspicion by the DUP, who fear that he favours a united Ireland.  Similarly, the Conservatives have no desire for a General Election, which they know could well result in a Corbyn-led government.  So the DUP and all the Conservative MPs voted in support of the government, which meant that the vote of no confidence was lost by 19 votes.

Corbyn came under some renewed pressure from Remainers, after the vote of no confidence was lost, to accept that the push to gain a General Election had failed and to move towards a second referendum.  But the colossal scale of May’s defeat in the Brexit deal vote means that she is so weak that a General Election is still very much on the cards.  Corbyn’s strategy is to keep up the pressure.  The Labour Party is allowed by parliamentary rules to table as many votes of no confidence as it likes.

In her speech after winning the vote of no confidence, May outlined the next steps: she would hold talks with the leaders of all the opposition parties to try to find out what changes would be needed to get her deal through Parliament and she would return to Brussels for more talks with EU leaders to try to gain concessions on the backstop.   In accordance with a rule laid out in the 2018 EU Withdrawal Act (Section 13:4), it was later announced that on Monday January 21 she would present to Parliament her Plan B, which would be debated and voted upon on Tuesday January 29 (which is tomorrow).

May held talks with the leaders of the smaller opposition parties:  the Liberal Democrats, the  Scottish National Party,  Plaid Cymru (the Welsh National Party)  and the Green Party.  But Corbyn refused to attend the talks unless and until May ruled out No Deal.  It has become clear that her strategy is to run down the clock till March 29 (the date when Britain leaves the EU), in the hope that, faced with only two alternatives – either imminently leaving the EU without a deal (which is widely predicted to be a disaster for the UK) or accepting her deal — Parliament will finally opt for the latter course.  The government is spending £4.2 billion on its plans for No Deal, as a way of concentrating minds.  News has even emerged that Whitehall officials are examining the possibility of imposing martial law after a No Deal Brexit, to deal with civil unrest!

In a letter to Theresa May on January 18, Corbyn called the £4.2 billion “a grotesque waste”; on January 17, he pointed out in another letter to her that this sum “could significantly improve many of our cash-starved public services”.  In both letters he outlined what kind of deal Labour could accept:

“Labour would support a deal based on a new customs union with a UK say on future trade deals, a strong single market relationship and guarantees on workers’ rights, consumer standards and environmental protections”. (January 18 letter)

In the same January 18 letter, Corbyn expressed the view that “these are not genuine talks but designed to play for time and give the impression of reaching out while sticking rigidly to your own emphatically rejected plan.”  He pointed out that those who had attended the talks had not succeeded in persuading May to rule out No Deal or move away from her “red lines”.  And he emphasised that the chief EU negotiator, Michel Barnier, has said recently that the EU would immediately give a “favourable response” if the British government were to shift its “red lines”.[3]

On January 21, May presented her Plan B to the House of Commons.  A BBC analyst summed it up succinctly: “Theresa May’s Plan B is to continue with Plan A”.   She insisted that she would not rule out No Deal:

“The right way to rule out No Deal is for this House to approve a deal with the European Union.  This is what this Government is seeking to achieve.  The only other guaranteed way to avoid a No Deal Brexit is to revoke Article 50 [which triggered the leaving process] – which would mean staying in the EU”. [4]

In other words, she was saying to the majority of MPs who are afraid of No Deal “the only way to avoid No Deal is to vote for my deal” and to Brexiteer MPs who actually want what they call “a managed No Deal”: “vote for my deal or you will get no Brexit – we will stay in the EU”.    She proposed to return to the EU for more talks on changing the backstop so that it would be acceptable to the DUP and Conservative Brexiteers.  As Corbyn pointed out in his January 18 letter to her, she is “sticking rigidly” to her “emphatically rejected plan”.  Not for nothing has she been nicknamed “the Maybot” for her robotic personality.

Tomorrow, May’s Plan B (which is still Plan A), in the form of a motion, will be debated and voted on by Parliament.  An amendment put forward by Corbyn and backed by his Shadow Cabinet has led to reports in the mainstream press that Labour is now supporting a second referendum.  But Skwawkbox points out that this is again fake news – the amendment is intended to “force Theresa May to ensure that Parliament has enough time to debate and vote on all available options to prevent a no-deal Brexit “ – options that merely include a second referendum. [5]

Another much-publicised amendment has been put forward by the “centrist” Labour MP Yvette Cooper, in cooperation with former Conservative Ministers Nick Boles and Oliver Letwin.  It calls for an extension of Article 50 – which  means delaying the day Britain leaves the EU beyond March 29 — if a no-deal Brexit looks imminent.  And yet another widely-publicised amendment has been tabled by the Conservative back-bencher Graham Brady, chair of the influential 1922 Committee, calling for the Northern Ireland backstop to be scrapped and replaced by “alternative arrangements”.    But we won’t know till tomorrow’s debate which of the many amendments that have been put forward will be selected for debate and vote.

And the very latest news is that Boris Johnson, the former Foreign Secretary, has written today in the Daily Telegraph an article in which he claims he has heard from “very senior sources” that Theresa May is about to go back to Brussels and renegotiate the backstop.

The next Brexit Update will discuss the outcome of tomorrow’s debate, amendments and votes and consider what might happen next.





[3] January 17th letter and January 18th letter: