Donald Tusk has thrown Theresa May a lifeline

Posted On: 
20th March 2019

MV3 will be the clear choice between her deal and no deal the Prime Minister always needed the meaningful vote to be, writes Sebastian Whale

Donald Tusk said an extension to Article 50 was conditional on MPs backing the Withdrawal Agreement
Credit: 
PA Images

In its original incarnation, the meaningful vote was supposed to be a major one-off decision. It was set to be a judgment that would follow MPs around for the rest of their careers; a reference point for future consideration.

But several errors by Downing St, which began after the Withdrawal Agreement was ratified, watered down the potency of the vote. The second it emerged that MPs would be given more goes nuked any chance of it passing at the first attempt. MPs had cover in numbers to reject the agreement, safe in the knowledge it would not precipitate a no deal Brexit in the process. A record Commons defeat for a Prime Minister followed.

No10 tried to counteract this mistake by putting off the second meaningful vote with a view to securing changes to the Withdrawal Agreement, namely to the backstop mechanism that seeks to prevent a hard border in Northern Ireland. Sure enough, the PM returned from Strasbourg claiming she’d got cast iron, legally binding assurances from the EU that would be enough to assuage Brexiteers on her own side seeking a way to vote for her deal. Geoffrey Cox QC, the Attorney General, had other plans in mind.

With further speculation of MV3 on the cards, May suffered the fourth biggest defeat suffered by a PM, with a 149-vote loss.

But Donald Tusk, the President of the European Council, has thrown the PM an unlikely lifeline. He said that an extension to Article 50 would be conditional on MPs passing the Withdrawal Agreement. Though he said there would be an emergency summit in the result of another government defeat, he has rendered the vote back to its original purpose: her deal or no deal.

“Although Brexit fatigue is increasingly visible and justified, we cannot give up seeking until the very last moment a positive solution - of course, without opening up the withdrawal agreement,” he said.

“We have reacted with patience and goodwill to numerous turns of events and I am confident that also now we will not lack the same patience and goodwill at this most critical point in this process.”

Labour MPs amenable to voting with the Government have had no reason to break cover and rebel against their party while May’s deal continues to take a battering. But there is a healthy number, I’m told in double figures though not larger than 20, of MPs from leave-voting constituencies who would back the Withdrawal Agreement if they felt it would pass. A larger number is likely to want to prevent no deal altogether; analysis of leaving on WTO terms has suggested that Labour heartlands areas in the north and the midlands could be heavily affected.

At the same time, the mettle of Brexiteers who have downplayed the risks of leaving with no deal will be tested in the division lobbies. While there are undoubted hardliners who would relish doing so, Leavers including Jacob Rees-Mogg have said they would prefer to leave with something in hand.

Tusk’s intervention has certainly raised the stakes. With just days until the UK is legally due to leave the European Union, the debate has been reduced to a binary choice. While it is not certain that a vote against would lead to no deal (could revocation be in play, for example), that is the default option. As things stand, the UK will leave the EU on 29 March.

MPs across the House might decry this as reckless in the highest order. But in voting to trigger Article 50, this was a potential consequence the Commons itself vicariously decided to support.