BREXIT UPDATE 4: Guest Post by Deborah Maccoby

February 11, 2019

In Blog News

BREXIT UPDATE 4:  Welcome to Brexit Hell

My last Brexit Update was on January 30; so a recapitulation or summary of our story so far is in order.


After experiencing on January 15 over her Brexit deal the largest parliamentary defeat sustained by any British government in history, Theresa May refused to resign, but did invite the Leader of the Opposition Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn to table a vote of no confidence in her government.  She won the vote of no confidence the following day by 19 votes, because she was supported by the DUP and all Conservative MPs, none of whom want the government to fall, because the general election that would almost certainly follow would be likely to result in a Corbyn-led government.

On January 21, Theresa May presented to Parliament her Plan B, which turned out to be the same as her Plan A, apart from the cosmetic offer of talks with opposition party leaders  about what was needed for the deal to be passed by Parliament – talks that Jeremy  Corbyn refused to attend unless and until she ruled out No Deal.  The plan was, as before: continue attempting to get the Brexit deal passed by Parliament by a) trying to get the EU to change the backstop and b) using the threats of No Deal (feared by the majority of MPs) and No Brexit (feared by a minority of hard-right Brexiteers) to force MPs to vote in the end for her deal, as the only other option as the leaving date of March 29 approaches.

On January 29, May presented her so-called “Plan B” to Parliament in the form of an amendable motion; 19 amendments were tabled, of which the Speaker selected seven for debate and vote.  Of these only two passed.  One ruled out No Deal, but was non-binding, so is being ignored by Theresa May, who continues to run down the clock by presenting No Deal as the only alternative (apart from revoking Brexit completely) to her deal .  The only change this amendment produced was that Jeremy Corbyn agreed to talk to Theresa May. The other, the Brady Amendment (which passed because she ordered all Conservative MPs to vote for it and managed to persuade the DUP and right-wing Brexiteers not to rebel), she clutched at as though at a lifeline.  But it is a straw; it calls for the scrapping of the backstop and its replacement by “alternative arrangements” without specifying what those arrangements could be; and the Brady Amendment was from the start rejected by EU leaders.


What has happened in the 12 days since January 30?  Theresa May has spent the time travelling both to Ireland and to Brussels to meet with the Irish Prime Minister and with EU leaders.   Before she embarked on these fruitless journeys, a Downing Street spokesman, referring to the Brady Amendment, claimed that “what the vote has done is set out what parliament requires in order to pass this deal, so we now have clarity”. [1]

Whatever other words are appropriate to describe this situation, “clarity”, however, does not appear to be among them.   On the one hand, Theresa May still talks about “alternative arrangements” to the backstop (for instance,in her latest letter to  Corbyn mentioned below).  But she has also been saying that what she wants, rather than scrapping the backstop entirely and replacing it with an unspecified something else, is “legally-binding assurances” added to it to alleviate the fears of the DUP and the Conservative right wing Brexiteers.  EU leaders continue to insist that they cannot reopen any negotiations on the backstop; but they are offering talks to try to break the deadlock – talks which so far appear to have produced nothing.[2]

Donald Tusk, President of the European Council of Ministers, caused controversy on February 6 by saying in a speech that he wondered what the “special place in Hell looks like” that, according to him, is reserved for those who promoted Brexit without any plan for how to carry it through (a reference to figures like the former Conservative Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage, the former leader of the UK Independence Party (UKIP)).[3]  When asked later at a press conference if he agreed with Donald Tusk, Jean Claude Juncker, the President of the European Commission, replied that, being less Catholic than Tusk, he does not share the latter’s belief in an afterlife in Hell as well as in Heaven.  But Juncker concluded: “I’ve never seen Hell, apart from when I was doing my job here.  It’s Hell”.[4]  It’s difficult not to feel some sympathy for him amid the Hell on Earth that is Brexit negotiations.  Sympathise or not (of course there are far, far worse Hells on Earth than Brexit Hell) we can surely all agree that “Hell on Earth” approaches more closely to the reality of the current situation than “clarity”.

Jeremy Corbyn has written a letter to Theresa May in which he has set out five conditions under which Labour would support her deal.  These are:

  1. a) A permanent and comprehensive UK-wide customs union. This would include alignment with the union customs code, a common external tariff and an agreement on commercial policy that includes a UK say on future EU trade deals. We believe that a customs union is necessary to deliver the frictionless trade that our businesses, workers and consumers need, and is the only viable way to ensure there is no hard border on the island of Ireland.  As you are aware, a customs union is supported by most businesses and trade unions.
  2. b) Close alignment with the single market. This should be underpinned by shared institutions and obligations, with clear arrangements for dispute resolution.
  3. c) Dynamic alignment on rights and protections, so that UK standards keep pace with evolving standards across Europe as a minimum, allowing the UK to lead the way.
  4. d) Clear commitments on participation in EU agencies and funding programmes, including in areas such as environment, education and industrial regulation
  5. e) Unambiguous agreements on the detail of future security arrangements, including access to the European Arrest warrant and vital shared databases.[5]

The letter was welcomed by EU leaders, who want Theresa May to drop her “red lines” and would also like to see the British copying the European model of cross-party consensus rather than the adversarial system that tends to be adopted in the UK.  Guy Verhofstadt, Brexit Coordinator for the European Parliament, tweeted after a discussion with Theresa May:

“Backstop non-negotiable.  We’ll never abandon Ireland.  I welcome@jeremycorbyn letter making a cross-party approach for the first time possible.  From the hell we’re in today, there is at last hope of a heavenly solution even if it won’t be Paradise”.[6]

But in her letter in reply to Corbyn, Theresa May claimed that her deal and its accompanying Political Declaration on the future relationship already provided most of  the benefits sought by Corbyn’s demands and that leaving the customs union would enable the UK to strike its own trade deals.  She did, however, adopt a conciliatory tone in relation to some of the issues, which led some newspapers to suggest that she was holding the door open to some kind of cross-party consensus on a “softer” Brexit. [7] But this illusion has been dispelled today; No 10 has made it clear that the Prime Minister is sticking by her “red lines”, especially on the crucial customs union issue.  A spokesman for Theresa May said today: “We are absolutely clear on this: we’re not considering Jeremy Corbyn’s customs proposals; we’re not considering any proposals to remain in the customs union. We must have our own, independent trade policy.”[8]  However, there is speculation that the conciliatory tone of her letter may indicate that she is trying to appeal over  Corbyn’s head to Labour MPs in Leave-supporting constituences to back her deal.[9]

Corbyn’s offer to negotiate with Theresa May on potential support for her deal aroused outrage among Labour Remain-supporting MPs.  Every time Corbyn makes it clear that he respects the democratic (even if narrow) vote for Brexit and intends to go ahead with Brexit if he becomes Prime Minister, this news is treated as some kind of shock, treacherous revelation by Remainers.   Talk has been revived of some Remainer Labour MPs leaving the Labour Party to set up a new “centrist” party. [10] A new row has broken out today over claims that originally  Corbyn’s letter included an assertion that, if Theresa May rejected his demands, Labour would abandon the push for a General Election and move to support of a second referendum, but that Corbyn took this sentence out at the last minute.  A Labour source has told the Independent on-line newspaper that these claims are “false”.[11]

The latest news on Brexit is that Theresa May has moved forward her statement (in the form of an amendable motion) to the House of Commons – a statement that she had promised to make on Wednesday February 13 if she had not secured a new deal by that date – to tomorrow, Tuesday February 12, in order to give time for MPs to draft amendments.[12]   The next Brexit Update will discuss the statement and the amendments and consider what might happen next.














(the full letter from Theresa May to Corbyn)