BREXIT UPDATE 9: Guest Post by Deborah Maccoby

March 3, 2019

In Uncategorized

BREXIT UPDATE 9:  The February 27 Debate:  Countdown to March 29

To begin with a brief recapitulation of the Maybot’s statement on Tuesday, February 26.  Faced with the prospect of Cabinet resignations in order to vote for the threatened Cooper-Letwin Amendment (see Brexit Update 8), the Maybot presented a timetable according to which:

1) On March 12 she will present a revised version of her deal to Parliament

2) If her deal is voted down, MPs will vote on March 13 on whether or not to accept No Deal

3) If No Deal is rejected, MPs will vote on March 14 on whether to not to ask the EU to agree to an extension of the March 29 leaving date.

As was pointed out in Brexit Update 8, this is essentially a version of the Cooper-Letwin Amendment, which was therefore withdrawn.

In a clear attempt to avoid yet another defeat, the government’s amendable motion on Wednesday, February 27 was phrased in the most neutral terms possible:

“This House notes the Prime Minister’s statement on leaving the European Union of 26 February 2019; and further notes that discussions between the UK and the EU are ongoing”.

Five amendments were selected for debate and vote, of which only two passed.  The motion as amended was passed “on the nod”, without any need for a vote.

The Two Successful Amendments

1)  The New Cooper Amendment

In the Alice-in-Wonderland world of the House of Commons, just as the Maybot’s statement setting out the March Hare timetable was a version of the now withdrawn  Cooper/Letwin Amendment, so Yvette Cooper’s new amendment was a reiteration of the Maybot’s statement.  The new Cooper Amendment runs:

“and further notes in particular the commitment of the Prime Minister made in this House to hold a second meaningful vote by 12 March and if the House, having rejected leaving with the deal negotiated with the EU, then rejects leaving on 29 March without a withdrawal agreement and future framework, the Government will, on 14 March, bring forward a motion on whether Parliament wants to seek a short limited extension to Article 50 and, if the House votes for an extension, seek to agree that extension approved by the House with the EU, and bring forward the necessary legislation to change the exit date commensurate with that extension.”

Essentially, this amendment pins the Maybot down so that she has to keep to the terms of the statement that she was forced into making on February 26.  The Cooper Amendment was overwhelmingly passed:  the Ayes: 502; the Noes: 20 (these were hard-line Brexiteers opposed to an extension and to ruling out No Deal).

Originally the government decided to abstain on the Cooper Amendment – that is, in the Alice-in-Wonderland world of the British House of Commons, to abstain on an amendment that reiterated the Prime Minister’s own statement (though of course she was forced into making it).  But the government finally agreed to back the amendment; and of the at least 50 (perhaps up to 90) hard-line Brexiteers, only 20 rebelled.[1]

2)  The Costa Amendment

Despite being in the end passed without the need for a vote, this amendment, tabled by the Conservative MP Alberto Costa, is surrounded by confusion and argument (as of course are most aspects of Brexit).  The amendment seeks to guarantee the rights of EU citizens living in the UK and UK citizens resident in the EU, even in the event of No Deal.  Though this amendment had wide cross-party support, it seems that the government at first not only refused to back it but forced Costa to resign from his post as a Parliamentary Private Secretary for tabling it.  But after a row, the government climbed down and agreed to support the amendment, claiming that Costa had not been sacked but had resigned as a matter of protocol.[2]

In the end, the Costa Amendment was passed by the House of Commons “on the nod”, in accordance with the verbal response to the Speaker’s instruction “all those in favour say Aye”, without the need for a vote.

The Three Other Amendments

1)  The New  Spelman/Dromey Amendment

This amendment, tabled by the Conservative Remainer Dame Caroline Spelman and the Labour MP Jack Dromey, would have paved the way to a bill that, if passed, would have held the Maybot, in a legally binding way, to her promise that MPs would be able to vote on whether or not to extend Article 50.  But Dame Caroline withdrew the amendment after getting assurances from the government.

2)  The New Blackford/SNP Amendment

This amendment, tabled by Ian Blackford, the leader in Westminster of the Scottish National Party (SNP) sought to address the problem – emphasised in Brexit Update 8 – with May’s March timetable.  Her statement represented a victory over the government for MPs trying to prevent No Deal, in that she was forced to agree to a parliamentary vote on No Deal and on an extension of Article 50.  But the flaw is that it became clear from her statement that, if No Deal is rejected by Parliament on March 13, the rejection would only apply to the March 29 leaving date and not to any future leaving dates.  The Maybot is thus still free to pursue her “Groundhog Day” strategy of blackmailing Parliament with a stark choice between her deal and No Deal as the leaving date looms; theoretically, there could be an endless “swimming round in circles” process of the Maybot presenting a revised deal to Parliament the rejection of which will lead to a vote against No Deal and then a vote for another extension; and so on till MPs will be so worn down that in the end, out of sheer exhaustion and despair, they will pass her deal.

The Blackford Amendment sought to avoid this scenario by calling for the UK not to leave the EU without a deal “under any circumstances”.  The amendment had wide cross-party support, including from the Labour Party, but was voted down by Conservatives.  It was defeated by 36 votes: the ayes: 288; the noes: 324.

3)  The New Corbyn/Labour Front Bench Amendment

This amendment called for Corbyn’s alternative Brexit plan to be accepted and implemented.  As was expected, the amendment was voted down.  It was defeated by 83 votes: the ayes: 240; the Noes: 323.

As described in Brexit Update 8, in order to prevent more Labour Remainer defections to the Independent Group, the Labour leadership indicated before the vote that, if their alternative plan for Brexit was defeated, they would later put forward an amendment that would support a second referendum, in the event that May’s deal eventually passes.

Today (Sunday March 3), many British newspapers are suggesting that it is increasingly possible that the deal could actually pass on March 12 (or earlier if May brings forward the date for the vote).  The  Attorney-General, Sir Geoffrey Cox, is trying to negotiate a legally-binding time limit to the backstop.  Some senior Conservatives, such as Sir Graham Brady, the head of the influential Conservative 1922 Committee, have said that they will be willing to back the deal if this is achieved.  However, the chief EU negotiator, Michel Barnier, has said that EU “will not allow a time limit or a one-sided exit right”; it will only commit itself “to limit the backstop through an agreement on the future relationship….in the form of an interpretative document”.  It is not yet known whether this would be acceptable to Conservative MPs such as Sir Graham Brady; and it certainly would not be acceptable to the hard-line Brexiteers and the DUP.[3]

But in the (still remote) eventuality of the deal passing, Labour is saying, it would be better to remain in the EU than accept May’s “hard Tory Brexit”, which is designed to benefit the rich by lowering standards.  So, if the deal passes, the referendum choice would be between May’s deal and remaining in the EU.

As stated in Brexit Update 8, this does not mean that Labour has given up on its alternative Brexit plan or on a General Election.[4]  In a Sky News interview on Friday, March 1, Corbyn said that Labour would  also support another option of a referendum with three choices: May’s deal, Labour’s alternative Brexit plan and remaining in the EU (this referendum would presumably happen if May’s deal continues to be rejected by Parliament; the referendum would be a way of breaking the impasse).  The only option that must be left out, he said, was No Deal.[5]  And he has also said that Labour will continue to push for a General Election as well.  So it is possible that, if the deal is rejected again on March 12, Labour will again table a vote of no confidence in the government.   Labour is leaving out no options except No Deal.  With Labour now backing a referendum – whether with two choices or three – this increases its likelihood of taking place.  But at present it is hard to see any Labour amendment calling for a referendum being passed by Parliament.

What could happen next?

Despite the claims in today’s media (Sunday March 3) that there is an increased possibility that May’s deal will be accepted (see discussion above of the Corbyn/Labour Front Bench Amendment), it is still much more likely that, in a week and two days, May’s deal will be again rejected.  MPs are then likely to vote against No Deal and to vote for an extension.

But any extension must be agreed by all 27 member states of the EU.  There is considerable debate about whether the EU would agree to an extension and whether, if so, it would be long or short.  Most EU leaders seem to be opposed to a series of three-month extensions.  A three-month extension to the end of June is considered possible by some EU leaders, but they are saying that  this would be a one-off, because Britain would not be able to take part in the European elections; the new European Parliament holds its first session in early July.  After that time, the UK would no longer be a EU member state.  So if, as seems highly likely, there will be no series of short extensions, this cuts the ground away from the Maybot’s ability to threaten No Deal over and over again till Parliament is worn down into accepting her deal.

However some EU leaders are said to favour a long extension, up to the end of December 2020, during which the UK would remain a member state (and take part in the European Parliament elections); and this view seems to be gaining ground.  This would leave time for a General Election and change of government or even a referendum.

But such a length of time could also play into May’s blackmailing strategy — only in terms of No Brexit rather than No Deal.  Instead of threatening MPs with “your only choice is between my deal or No Deal”, she could say to MPs: “the long extension could become indefinite, so your only choice is between my deal or No Brexit”.  This is the reason that some Conservatives say they are now considering voting for the deal if a time limit on the backstop is achieved. The Maybot is also hoping that the fear of No Brexit could lead some Labour MPs who represent Leave-supporting areas to support her deal.  It could be that, in suggesting a long extension, some EU leaders are trying to help May to get her deal over the line.[6]

The UK is still faced with leaving with No Deal at the end of March, in only a few weeks’ time.  But it is unlikely that the EU will allow this to happen.  Economic disaster in the UK would impinge on the EU and indeed the whole world.  The most likely scenario is that Parliament will vote for an extension and the EU will propose a long extension.

Acceptance of the deal by Parliament is perhaps very faintly possible.  But if – as still seems much more likely —  Parliament again rejects the deal and the long extension takes place, with the UK staying as a full EU member state till 2021, May could be forced to resign, since she will have failed to make good on her promise to deliver Brexit on the agreed legal leaving-date of March 29 (or a date close to March 29). This would trigger a Conservative leadership contest, which would probably lead to a General Election.  So, out of the thicket of motions and amendments, there does seem to be a path emerging towards a General Election.