BREXIT UPDATE 23: Glimmers of Hope amid Chaos: Guest Post by Deborah Maccoby

April 5, 2019

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There have been so many complicated developments since Brexit Update 22 (posted on Tuesday night) that it is best to divide them into five areas:

1) The Cooper/Letwin bill debate on Wednesday (April 3).

2) An amendment calling for a further “indicative votes” session on Monday (April 8) in order to continue the search for a consensus on the way forward.

3) The ongoing talks between Labour and Conservative leaders.

4)  Internal divisions among both Labour and Conservative MPs.

5) New proposals from the Maybot and the EU.


The Cooper/Letwin bill debate on Wednesday  – during which the bill was pushed forward in one day – was, as so often happens with  Brexit,  a mixture of political drama and arcane, baffling technical and procedural argument.  The bill, which, if made law, would force the Maybot to ask the EU for an extension beyond the current April 12 deadline, is intended to block leaving with No Deal on April 12.  The Maybot has already said she will seek an extension beyond April 12; but the bill is intended to compel her to stick to her word.

The bill calls for the Maybot to present to Parliament an amendable motion proposing an extension of Article 50 up to a date that she would choose.  The motion would be amended, debated and voted on by MPs.  If MPs decide on a different date, the Maybot will be obliged to take it to the EU leaders for their summit on April 10.  If the EU proposes a different date, the Maybot must bring it back to the House of Commons on Thursday, April 11, to be approved by MPs before it can become law.  This seems to be a means of preventing the government from rejecting the EU’s proposed date – widely predicted to be a long extension – and leaving with no deal on April 12.

There were angry speeches from right-wing Brexiteer Conservative MPs who want to leave with no deal on April 12.  These MPs were exemplified by Sir Bill Cash, who insisted that the UK did not want to run any risk of taking part in the European elections, calling them a waste of money and the European Parliament “a complete farce”.  He claimed at one point, in relation to European states, “we saved them twice”, with reference to both the First and Second World Wars.   There were less emotional complaints that the bill did not state any time limit for any extension.  It was also pointed out that any new extension date is entirely the decision of the EU.

Opponents of the bill tried to obstruct its passing by the end of Wednesday by tabling many complicated amendments and making lengthy, largely incomprehensible speeches in support of them — in a deliberate delaying process known as “filibustering”.   However, in the end, the bill passed its third reading close to midnight by one vote: the Ayes: 313: the Noes: 312.  Yesterday, (Thursday April 4), the bill went to the House of Lords for approval; but there was so much filibustering by Eurosceptic Lords during the debate that there was insufficient time for a vote; and the debate will be resumed on Monday.[1]  Even if the bill passes the Lords and becomes law on Monday, the timing would be extremely tight; only Tuesday would remain for Parliament to determine the proposed date before the emergency EU Council summit on Wednesday.

2) During the Cooper/Letwin bill debate, the Labour MP Hilary Benn tabled an amendment that included a call for a further session of “indicative votes” on Monday.  This resulted in a tie: the Ayes: 310: the Noes: 310.  In the event of a draw, the protocol is that the Speaker casts the deciding vote and does so in favour of the government.   So the Speaker voted with the Noes.  As a result, there won’t be an “indicative votes” session on Monday.  But in her statement on Tuesday evening (April 2), the Maybot promised that, if her talks with Corbyn do not result in a joint plan, she and Corbyn will agree on a series of “indicative votes” that will be put to MPs, in the hope that they will manage to find one that commands a majority – “indicative votes” that could well include her deal as an option.  Though her appeal to Corbyn seems, at least to some extent, to have been genuine, she must also be hoping that the threat of a long extension and a “soft Brexit”, according to Corbyn’s plan, might cause more hard-line  Brexiteer MPs to vote for her deal.  It is possible that these “indicative votes” could be held on Tuesday.

3) The Corbyn/May, Conservative/Labour talks.  These have now been held for three days.  On Wednesday, the government called the talks “constructive” – a bland word used to describe any negotiations which don’t actually become a shouting match.  Corbyn, however, described the talks as “useful but inconclusive” and said there had not been as much change in the Prime Minister’s position as he had expected.  Yesterday (Thursday April 4), the talks lasted for four and a half hours.  The government described them as “productive and detailed”; the Labour leadership did not comment.  It seems unlikely that any deal will be reached by this coming Wednesday (April 10), the date of the emergency summit meeting of the European Council.   And the very latest development tonight is that Keir Starmer, the Shadow Brexit Secretary, has called the talks “disappointing”, saying that the government is “not countenancing any change”.[2]  The Maybot may possibly have had genuine intentions, but compromise was never part of her programming.

4) Divisions among Conservatives and Labour

There has been a very angry response within the Conservative Party to May’s appeal for help to  Corbyn (which is one reason why most commentators are treating it as genuine, at least to some extent).  Two ministers have resigned from the government in protest.[3]

Meanwhile, Labour is experiencing its own divisions over the issue of a confirmatory vote/second referendum.  Emily Thornberry, the Shadow Foreign Secretary, was unable to attend an emergency Shadow Cabinet meeting, but wrote a leaked letter to MPs that contained this:

“What I would have said is that if we look like reaching any other decision than confirmatory vote that would be in breach of the decision made unanimously by Conference in Liverpool and overwhelmingly supported by our members and it needs to be put to a vote by the Shadow Cabinet……can I – in writing – confirm that my votes are that any deal agreed by Parliament must be subject to a confirmatory public vote and yes, the other option on the ballot must be Remain.”

This has been taken up by the media to imply that Thornberry was expressing Labour Party policy, but – as Skwawkbox points out, she was merely indicating her own point of view.  Skwawkbox also emphasises that Thornberry is wrong in saying that not holding a second referendum/confirmatory vote would be in breach of the decision reached by the Labour Party 2018 Conference:  the decision reached was that a public vote would be kept open as an option but would be only one alternative to be considered if Labour could not gain a general election (see Brexit Update 7) .[4]

However, the letter makes clear the divisions within the Shadow Cabinet – some supporting a confirmatory vote, others (probably including Corbyn) doubtful.  The division of opinion is also clear among Labour MPs – 25 of them, mostly from Leave-voting constituencies, have written a letter to Corbyn asking him not to support a second referendum/confirmatory vote.[5]

5) Negotiations on the leaving date between EU leaders and the Maybot

The Maybot is intent on avoiding UK participation in the European elections.  With this aim in mind, she has written to the EU proposing an extension till June 30.  This date has been repeatedly rejected by the EU; but of course rejection has never stopped the Maybot from making the same approach over and over again.  The Maybot has chosen June 30 because the first sitting of the newly-elected European Parliament will be in early July – so June 30 is the latest date that the UK could stay in the EU without being in the anomalous position of being the only state that doesn’t have MEPs in the European Parliament.  But it is clear that the EU doesn’t want the UK hanging around in the EU during the European Parliamentary elections in May without participating in them; as a leaked document made clear, there is a fear that UK chaos and uncertainty could contaminate the EU elections (see Brexit Update 14).   So the EU has ruled out June 30.

The EU has also made it clear that, unless the UK agrees by April 12 to participate in the European elections and begins to make preparations for these elections, no further extension can be granted; if the deal fails to pass by May 22 (the day before the European elections begin), it will not be possible to grant a further extension, because the UK will have locked itself out of the European elections; the only option will be leaving with No Deal.  Tellingly, even though the Maybot requested a June 30 leaving date in her letter to Tusk, she also revealed that the government has actually begun preparations for UK participation in the European Parliament elections.

There are now reports that Donald Tusk has come up with a new compromise plan:  a flexible extension that he calls a “flextension”.  It would last a year, but the UK could walk away from it at any time once a deal was agreed.[6]   If this is offered by the European Council (of course it has to be agreed by all 27 member states), maybe the whole process could be renamed Flexit?

And to end this Brexit Update with a development that seems to represent a metaphor for the present insecurity and instability (though Tusk’s reported new ideas do seem to offer a glimmer of hope):  yesterday (Thursday), House of Commons sittings had to be adjourned, because rainwater was leaking from the ceiling into the debating Chamber.[7]





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[6]  See also: