Breaking the Brexit deadlock: the tough choices ahead for Theresa May

Posted On: 
18th January 2019

With the Withdrawal Agreement all but dead and buried, Sebastian Whale examines the stark choices facing Parliament and the Prime Minister

The task at hand requires a level of compromise and consensus building that even the staunchest defender of the Tory leader would admit has been missing in the past two and a half years, writes Sebastian Whale
Credit: 
UK Parliament/Mark Duffy

John Bercow has tested the patience of Conservatives on more than one occasion in recent weeks. But even the most hardened of his critics were left perplexed when the Speaker revealed his chosen amendments to the meaningful vote.

Andrew Murrison, the chair of the Northern Ireland Select Committee, had put forward an amendment that would have put a time limit on the backstop, the controversial mechanism that would prevent a hard border in Ireland should the UK and the EU not agree on the future relationship before the end of the transition period. Opponents feel the backstop would leave Britain tied with Brussels in perpetuity with no unilateral means of exiting the arrangement.

Supporters of Murrison’s amendment felt it presented an opportunity to send Brussels a clear message of what was required to get Theresa May’s deal over the line. To the consternation of eurosceptic backbenchers, the Speaker decided to select four different amendments. In doing so, Bercow prevented Parliament from sounding out the “pragmatic” Brexiteers who could be won over to the PM’s Withdrawal Agreement, one insider says.

“He deliberately frustrated what was going to be the best test of opinion,” they continue. “It was a pretty odd decision. It would have defined those of us who think the Withdrawal Agreement is suboptimal at the least but are prepared to tolerate it as long as it is possible to achieve a different relationship in the future.”

A spokesperson for the Speaker says: “The selection of amendments is at the discretion of the chair. Reasons are not disclosed for the selection – or not – of amendments.”

With three amendments withdrawn on the night, only Sir John Baron’s, which would have given the UK the unilateral right to exit the backstop, was voted on. Just 24 MPs voted in favour of the amendment, with 600 against.

Safe in the knowledge a second vote was in the offing, the spectre of no deal was no longer an immediate concern for pro-EU MPs when they entered the division lobbies for the meaningful vote. Without assurances on the backstop, and with the DUP resolute in its opposition, Brexiteers felt they had no choice but to rebel.

Some Labour backbenchers from heavily leave-voting constituencies had contemplated supporting the Government, but there was no point copping the flack that would follow given a defeat was inevitable. Poplar and Limehouse MP Jim Fitzpatrick explains to The House: “I probably could have been tempted to vote for the existing deal if the Prime Minister had a chance of getting it through.”

Just three Labour MPs voted with the Government.

All this taken together precipitated the largest defeat suffered by a Prime Minister in the history of the UK’s democracy. A loss of such magnitude has meant it can no longer be business as usual on Brexit – it is self-evident that bringing back the same deal with minor tweaks would not command the support of the House.

And that is why Bercow’s decision was so important. The Prime Minister signalled at the despatch box a change in emphasis, saying she planned to hold meetings with “senior parliamentarians” to ascertain what is necessary to get the backing of the Commons. Since the no confidence vote, May has met with MPs from across the political spectrum in No10 (Jeremy Corbyn has so far boycotted talks until the PM rules out no deal). Signals from the more Europhile wing of the Cabinet have been towards a so-called softer Brexit, with Philip Hammond, Amber Rudd and David Gauke among those to consider Britain entering a customs union.

Should the Murrison amendment have played out as some Brexiteers believe, that could have presented a path for the PM to get the DUP and the “pragmatic” eurosceptics on board. For the time being at least, it seems she is giving airtime to alternative routes.

That’s not to say that eurosceptics have given up the ghost. Former Brexit Secretary David Davis is one of those continuing to call for a Canada+++ free trade agreement. For other Brexiteers, the Tory leader’s best hope of carrying her party remains in securing a time limit or exit from the backstop. “That’s about all she’s got any freedom to get to,” one backbencher claims.

“The crucial thing is the acceptance from lots of people that whatever comes out in the current circumstance is going to be pretty crap, but it has got to be possible to change it in the future. If you can’t change it in the future, we’re stuck with ‘pretty crap’ in perpetuity, and that’s not a great alternative.” 

EU officials have been adamant the Withdrawal Agreement is not open for renegotiation, and MPs won’t stomach anything that appears legally flimsy – they want binding assurances that the backstop is time limited.

Others say scraping a deal through the Commons off the back of Tory, DUP and a handful of Labour votes is no way to unite Parliament on Brexit. “One of the ways to really turn the page – this would be my other message to the Prime Minister – is to get as wide a consensus in parliament as possible. Just edging a deal over the line is not going to be sufficient,” Labour’s Lucy Powell says.

It is for this reason why some believe the government’s best route to garnering support could be via Labour MPs. But for many in Her Majesty’s Opposition it is too little too late. One backbencher tells me there were around 100 malleable MPs who could have been won over on Brexit, should the PM have had the ability or inclination to “charm” them. In the vacuum, MPs have picked up by subsets such as Corbyn loyalists, second referendum supporters and advocates of the so-called Norway option.

The Labour leadership would also require any Brexit arrangement to involve a customs union with the EU – an arrangement that Brexiteer Steve Baker said would lead to a “catastrophic” Tory split. The murmurings from Downing Street point to the PM sticking resolutely to her red lines (her critics would be less charitable with their choice of words). Many also doubt whether May has the political dexterity to garner support from all corners of the Commons.

As the vote of no confidence showed, the Commons is also unlikely to agree to hold a general election – though, like a second referendum, it could be a way out of the deadlock (whether it would break it, in the long run, is disputed). No Tory MPs voted in favour of Jeremy Corbyn’s motion and all 10 of the DUP’s MPs backed May. Jacob Rees-Mogg’s admission to the BBC that he would vote with the PM on future no confidence motions was telling. Fellow party leaders have vowed not to back future no confidence motions in order to bounce Corbyn into taking a view on a second referendum.

Proponents of another vote are still banking on the support of their respective party leaders, but thus far Corbyn and May have shown no leg whatsoever to the idea. The longer the Commons impasse persists, however, the more emboldened supporters of a so-called People’s Vote will feel.

Working quietly in the background have been backers of a Norway-style Brexit – redubbed Common Market 2.0 in the new year. The movement has gained more outriders in the media, such as Guardian commentator Owen Jones, and has assembled a cross-party top team including Labour’s Lucy Powell and Conservative former minister Nick Boles. Backers say the DUP are not wedded against it, as the arrangement would negate the need for a backstop.

But Norway Plus would require the PM to all-but dilute her red lines. Whether she and her party can stomach continuing freedom of movement (notwithstanding an emergency brake mechanism that would be at the UK’s disposal) and entering a customs union (bye-bye independent free trade deals) remains to be seen.

“You can’t do Norway and carry the Conservative party with you,” says a senior Tory figure.

For now, the default outcome is a no deal Brexit. Policy levers exist to prevent leaving on WTO terms, such as rescinding or extending Article 50 (Hammond reportedly floated this to business leaders on Wednesday), but that would require May to eat a large slice of humble pie – and once again risk splitting her party.

“If you go to deferring Article 50 for anything other than if it was two weeks for a technical purpose… then maybe that would be okay,” a eurosceptic says. “But otherwise everybody is going to go bananas and think there is no end, ever.”

Whichever way you look at it, the choices ahead for May are stark. They require a level of compromise and consensus building that even the staunchest defender of the Tory leader would admit has been missing in the past two and a half years. To simultaneously secure a majority agreement on Brexit, and keep together the disparate elements of her party, is the daunting task that continues to haunt this beleaguered Prime Minister.