Valentine’s heartbreak for May

15 Feb 2019

George Brown

Economist

MPs embarrass PM by defeating motion that endorses two amendments to replace Irish backstop with "alternative arrangements"

Parliamentarians were offered the opportunity yesterday to express whether or not they supported the government's negotiating strategy for Brexit.
 
This was presented as a motion that effectively endorsed the two amendments backed by MPs last month; to replace the Irish backstop with “alternative arrangements” and reject a no-deal Brexit. 
 
Taking issue with the latter part of this was the Eurosceptic Tory European Research Group (ERG), who reportedly pushed for the government to adopt the so-called Malthouse Compromise as its official negotiating policy. But the ERG’s demands were rejected by Prime Minister Theresa May, resulting in a large number of the group choosing to abstain from the main vote.
 
They were joined by a number of Europhile Tories, who opposed the reworking of the backstop. All in all, 67 Conservative MPs chose to remain seated in the Commons rather than pass through the division lobbies, resulting in the government losing the vote by 303 to 258 (a majority of 45).
 

PM returns to Brussels

 
While the defeat is somewhat embarrassing for Mrs May, it ultimately has no legal force and is unlikely to have a significant bearing on the future direction of talks. The Prime Minister is set to head back to Brussels next week to again press for legally binding changes to the Irish backdrop.
 
But so far the EU has rebuffed her advances, arguing that the proposed protocol can and will not be renegotiated. As such, Westminster and Brussels remain engaged in a monumental game of political chicken, with each side holding out for the other to blink first.
 
Still, the Prime Minister is constrained in how long she can hold out by a self-imposed deadline. In fact, she has less than a fortnight to try and gain some concessions from the EU, having promised to update the House of Commons on her progress on 26 February. If Mrs May fails to secure a revised deal by that date, MPs will then debate and vote on another non-binding motion. Alternatively, if a deal is agreed, MPs will be given a second "meaningful vote".
 

A no-deal Brexit or an extension to Article 50?

 
But in reality, the Prime Minister’s real intention might be to run down the clock until the 11th hour if comments by her chief Brexit negotiator, Olly Robbins, are to be believed. In remarks overheard in a hotel bar, Mr Robbins suggested that the Prime Minister’s threat to MPs that failing to back her negotiated treaty would result in a “no deal” Brexit on 29 March was an empty one.
 
He suggested that MPs would instead be presented with a different choice in the “week beginning end of March”; either vote for the Prime Minister’s revised deal or face a lengthy extension to Article 50. 
 
How Brexit developments develop from here, therefore, remains uncertain. But notably, Europhile MPs are rallying support for an amendment by Labour MP Yvette Cooper that would be attached to the next motion on 27 February.
 

Brexit timeline

 
This would give the Prime Minister until 13 March to get a deal through parliament, otherwise, MPs would either need to sign off on a no-deal Brexit or force the government to seek an extension to Article 50. Reports suggest that the proposal is winning cross-party support, with a number of government ministers reportedly prepared to resign to back the amendment rather than allow talks go down to the wire.
 
Ultimately, we are unlikely to get further clarity on the exact terms of the UK’s departure for some time, leading to a continued period of uncertainty for businesses and households. But we remain cautiously optimistic that a disorderly no-deal Brexit will be averted given that it appears that neither the Prime Minister nor the majority of MPs has an appetite for it.
 
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