As the clock ticks down, hardline MPs could have no choice but to compromiseby Aarti Shankar / January 22, 2019 / Leave a comment
Cross-party engagement has so far not produced a way out of the domestic impasse on Brexit. Theresa May has blamed Jeremy Corbyn for boycotting joint talks; opposition parties have denounced May’s own inflexible red lines. In truth, no side looks willing yet to move past their preferred Brexit outcome.
Unsurprisingly, the PM’s “plan B” approach therefore involves no significant overhaul of the deal on the table. Her statement to the Commons yesterday included a moderate ambition to strengthen commitments to workers’ rights and environmental protections—likely to try to win over the support of some Labour MPs. She is also considering “various ways” to offer assurances on the Irish backstop—but it is not clear that this means substantial changes to the text on the table.
It is likely then that MPs will face another vote in coming weeks on a deal that looks very similar to the current version. But given this was roundly rejected last week, is there any reason now for MPs to change their mind?
Well first, to a certain extent, parliamentary opposition was priced in for the first vote. MPs likely took the opportunity to reject the government’s general Brexit strategy more broadly, and its arms-length approach to parliament. There may be less of this the next time around.
Secondly, it is not clear that there is an alternative agreement that commands the support of parliament right now. The irony is that, while MPs voted overwhelmingly against the PM’s deal, they did so for a variety of different—and not necessarily mutually compatible—reasons. Labour is calling for a customs union and “strong single market agreement.” Conservative hardliners want a Canada-style agreement for the whole of the UK, and a unilateral exit mechanism from the Irish backstop. The Liberal Democrats, Green Party and Scottish National Party prioritise a second referendum, with Remain on the ballot paper. At least one group will end up disappointed.
MPs will likely test some of these options soon in votes on amendments to the government’s plan B. If some alternatives are voted down, a version of the existing Brexit deal may become more attractive. For instance, Jacob Rees-Mogg recently suggested that he could back the PM’s deal if a no deal option was ruled out. Indeed, given recent attempts by parliament to wrest control of Brexit, Leave-supporting MPs may calculate that continuing to oppose the prime minister’s deal risks putting the UK on the path to a softer Brexit, or no Brexit at all.
But what happens if no majority support is found for any way forward? A cross-party Bill has been put forward this week that attempts to push the government to seek an extension to Article 50 if parliament still cannot agree on a deal in February. If this passes, it may buy the UK more time—provided the EU agrees. But it does not fundamentally change the options on the table. It would not, as some have suggested, “take no deal off the table”—it would simply delay the cliff-edge.
MPs broadly have three paths to choose from: a negotiated exit, a no deal exit, or revoking Article 50 altogether. It looks like there is a majority for a negotiated exit, but many oppose the current withdrawal terms as well as the framework for future relations. This may not prove an insurmountable obstacle to passing the PM’s deal. The EU is likely to be more willing to negotiate the non-binding terms of the future trading relationship, rather than reopen discussions on the legally binding withdrawal text.
But it is also open to the UK to adjust its vision of the long-term bilateral relationship after Brexit—after all, the political declaration does not set out a firm roadmap for the future, but a “spectrum” of possibilities. MPs may therefore decide to bank the withdrawal agreement, which is necessary to ensure an orderly exit, and force a domestic discussion on the future relationship before trade negotiations begin.
There is of course no indication of a big swing towards some form of May’s deal yet. But it should not be ruled out. The range of Brexit outcomes being discussed by MPs will eventually have to be narrowed down. A majority may then emerge for a compromise deal.