Three Conservative MPs resigned from their party to join The Independent Group of eight Labour MPs who earlier this week formed a breakaway centrist faction in parliament.
The three MPs — Sarah Wollaston, Heidi Allen and Anna Soubry — have been highly critical of Prime Minister Theresa May’s strategy on Brexit and have voted against the government on that issue.
In a joint letter to the prime minister they accuse May of a “shift to the right” and of being “firmly in the grip” of the Brexiteer group of backbenchers, the European Research Group, and the Democratic Unionist Party.
“Instead of seeking to heal the divisions or to tackle the underlying causes of Brexit, the priority was to draw up ‘red lines,’” they wrote. “The 48% were not only sidelined, they were alienated.
“The country deserves better. We believe there is a failure of politics in general, not just in the Conservative party but in both main parties as they move to the fringes, leaving millions of people with no representation. Our politics needs urgent and radical reform and we are determined to play our part.”
May’s conservatives do not have a majority in parliament and are only able to govern because of a confidence and supply deal with the DUP.
In its attempts to find a way out of the Brexit impasse, the House of Commons has passed an amendment that gives Theresa May the green light to reopen talks with the European Union about what happens to the Irish border after Brexit – a key sticking point in getting her deal through parliament.
MPs have also voted to reject a no-deal Brexit. And in a final development on a busy day in the Brexit story, opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn has also agreed to enter talks with the prime minister to find a way forward. But many of these developments raise more questions than they answer.
The Brady amendment
The Irish backstop is an issue which has caused frustration not just on the Conservative benches, but also with the government’s confidence-and-supply partner, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). The amendment which was passed on this topic was tabled by Graham Brady, a Conservative backbencher and chairman of the party’s 1922 Committee. It commits the prime minister to seeking “alternative arrangements” for the backstop, though during the debate that came ahead of the vote, government ministers repeatedly refused to be drawn on what those alternative arrangements might be.
As the countdown to March 29 continues, this will be seen by many as a sign that progress is being made as there is a majority in favour of an amended deal. Yet in parliamentary terms, the UK is no closer to leaving with a deal than it was in December. The prime minister still has a lot of work to do.
May nevertheless sees the amendment as giving her a firm mandate to return to the EU and seek a new version of the Brexit deal. In a further sign that she has heeded the concerns of her own backbenchers, the prime minister also agreed to sit down and discuss the so called “Malthouse Compromise” – a proposal on the backstop agreed in secret between Conservative Brexiteers and Remainers and facilitated by some government ministers. It is not a parliamentary amendment but is an important behind-the-scenes movement as the government strives to reach some sort of consensus among MPs.
That said, while the prime minister may have her mandate to push for an amended deal, the EU has said it does not wish to renegotiate terms. In a statement released shortly after the vote, a spokesman for European Council president Donald Tusk said: “The backstop is part of the withdrawal agreement and the withdrawal agreement is not open for re-negotiation.” May will be hoping that with 317 MPs firmly behind her, Brussels will shift ground.
MPs rejected a no-deal Brexit
The surprise of the night was a narrow eight-vote victory for an amendment tabled by Conservative MP Caroline Spelman and Labour MP Jack Dromey. It aims to prevent a no-deal Brexit, though it does not come with legal underpinnings. Although it’s unlikely that the government thought this amendment would pass, it’s potency is somewhat muted given that the prime minister has consistently said that passing amendments of this form are a waste of time; and that the only way to stop no deal is to vote for a deal. It’s unlikely to mean much, other than emphasising that there is a political will in the Commons to avoid leaving the EU on March 29 without a deal.
Corbyn agreed to talk
Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the opposition, had refused any meetings with the prime minister over the past few weeks, saying repeatedly that he would not do so without preconditions being met, including the prime minister ruling out no deal. As a result, he is the only opposition party leader not to have met with May as she seeks consensus – although it should be noted that she initially extended the invitation to everyone except Corbyn. Yet Corbyn has now had a change of heart following the vote opposing a no deal exit and agreed to a meeting. This could prove highly significant over the next couple of weeks – movement on the Labour benches could help May’s next proposition cross the finish line.
Grieve and Cooper sunk
An amendment from Dominic Grieve, the Conservative backbencher who was largely responsible for forcing the government to come back to the Commons so soon after the meaningful vote last week failed to pass. The same went for Labour MP Yvette Cooper – whose amendment was only supported by leader of the opposition Jeremy Corbyn at the eleventh hour.
Both the Cooper and the Grieve amendments sought to suspend the usual Commons rules in which the government has control of business, and give more power to the Commons to control the Brexit process. The Grieve amendment would have allowed MPs to vote on a series of options for the withdrawal process, while the Cooper amendment sought to avoid a no-deal Brexit by making it legally binding on the prime minister to extend Article 50 if parliament had not agreed on a final Brexit deal by February 26. More MPs than expected voted against the Cooper amendment – perhaps a sign that Conservative MPs realised the Brady amendment would bring greater rewards.
What happens next?
The prime minister has said that she will go back to the EU and seek to reopen the Brexit package on offer. But with the EU currently saying it is unwilling to re-open talks on the deal, it is unclear at the moment what her next steps will be. She will, however, continue to meet with MPs including senior Conservative backbenchers and the DUP as she works towards an amended offer for parliament. With the clear majority voting against a no-deal Brexit, the ticking clock works in the prime minister’s favour. If the only way to avoid no deal is for parliament to take a favourable stance on an amended deal, they may have to support her deal in one form or another.
Parliament has a lot of work to do and it is running out of time in which to do it. There are limited sitting days between now and March 29, including a February recess. Assuming that an amended deal will be passed by the Commons next month, the house will still need to debate, (possibly) amend and pass a withdrawal agreement bill before the designated leave date. We may see the recess cancelled or the announcement of extra sitting days (Fridays could be used) between now and then. Either way, it’s going to be an even busier month for MPs as the Brexit clock ticks down.
As the clock ticks down to March 29 2019, all of the political manoeuvring, negotiating, arguing and fighting is coming to a peak. In the two and a half years since the 2016 EU referendum, views on both sides have hardened and agreement still seems as far away as it was the day after the referendum.
With Theresa May’s withdrawal agreement disliked by all sides, and voted down by an unprecedented majority in the House of Commons, everyone is wondering what can and should be done next?
While there are a number of options, some are more realistic than others. But in these turbulent times, it is impossible to conclusively rule any out. Here are some possibilities.
Present a new deal
Having seen her deal roundly rejected by parliament, the most obvious move for May might seem to be to go back to the EU to renegotiate. But the EU-27 have been clear from the day of the referendum result about what they were willing to offer. As the larger partner in the negotiations, and with a legal and political framework to protect, the EU could not rip up its own rules for one country. Indeed, the withdrawal agreement stretched the EU’s own red lines and they have repeatedly said that they could not, and would not, offer any more.
With the withdrawal agreement sunk, renegotiating with the EU along the same lines is a waste of time. The only type of renegotiation likely to have any chance of success is one where the larger issues, such as the customs union, are put back on the table. That seems to be something which May appears unwilling to do. It is hard to see how a new deal, without such renegotiation, would be any different to the old deal.
May has complained that while members of parliament have been very clear about what they won’t accept, they haven’t given any clear steer on what they will accept. That is undoubtedly true, largely because the House of Commons does not have a settled view of what the withdrawal agreement should look like or what the future relationship between the UK and EU should be.
In light of this, May has suggested that one way forward might be cross-party talks. But this is not an easy solution. May has enemies on all sides, with members of the Labour Party, Liberal Democrats, SNP and DUP all offering different solutions to her problem. Few of them will agree with May’s existing red lines, or with each other, making agreement almost impossible.
Another issue is the lack of time, with less than 80 days before the UK leaves the EU. Were these discussions to have taken place after the 2017 election, or when May became prime minister, agreement might just have been possible – but at this late stage, and with May appearing to be unwilling to compromise in any meaningful way, cross-party agreement looks unattainable.
Extend Article 50
The lack of time is an issue for Remainers and Leavers alike. Negotiation, a general election, another referendum – these all take time and Britain is scheduled to leave the EU on March 29. Article 50 could be extended, but this requires the agreement of the EU. In order for the UK to request this extension, and for the EU to agree, a practical plan of action would be needed to convince both sides that there was some point in an extension. While it is likely that an extension to article 50 may be sought, it is just a delay, not a solution.
For many of the 48% who voted to remain in the EU, a second referendum could be the answer to their prayers. Key Leave figures are under investigation for alleged irregularities during the referendum campaign and the British public are a lot more knowledgeable about the European Union now than they were in 2016. Another referendum might deliver a death blow to Brexit. However, there is no guarantee that it would deliver a Remain vote, and a vote could create even more divisions within society. The possibility of a second referendum is increasingly likely, but is still a long way off.
Of all the options, the only certainty is that if no further action is taken, no deals agreed, no referendum or general election, then the UK will leave the EU on March 29 with no deal. This would mean Britain would revert to trading on World Trade Organization rules. No other nation in the world trades exclusively on WTO rules and the economic damage would be extreme.
Delays at ports, and the issue of the Northern Irish border would also be hugely divisive and damaging for the UK economy. Trade deals take time, often years, to negotiate so the pain would not be short term for Britain. With no realistic benefits for the UK, it is hard to see why anyone would pursue this as a positive option.
None of the options open to the UK government and parliament are particularly attractive – and all have long-term costs – but the usual practice is that when the parliament of the UK cannot make a decision, the issue is put back to the public. Whether that can realistically be done now is hard to tell but no democracy should ever avoid the opinions of its own people.
“It just needs to be sorted,” said 23-year-old Adam Green, a frustrated Leave voter in Brexit-backing Sunderland, where patience with parliamentary delays over Britain’s departure is wearing thin.
The former shipbuilding city in northeast England, where the Nissan carmaker plant is now the lifeblood, played a starring role in Britain’s seismic decision to leave the European Union.
The city’s 61 percent vote in favour of leaving in the 2016 referendum signalled early on where the nation was heading on the night of June 23, 2016 and celebrations at the count were beamed worldwide.
Now, as MPs prepare for Tuesday’s decision on whether or not to back the divorce deal struck between London and Brussels, voters in Sunderland are urging them to get on with it and get Britain out.
The years of wrangling since the referendum over how, or even if, Britain leaves have certainly dampened the high spirits of that 2016 June night.
“It’s become an absolute joke,” said Green, who is unemployed for medical reasons, as he stood outside the Bridges main shopping centre.
“It’s disrespecting my vote completely. Myself and my whole family voted for us to come out,” he said.
“The MPs need to get their heads down and get us out.
“I just want it over and done with because I’m sick of hearing about Brexit,” he added.
The University of Sunderland campus was built in the 1990s on the site of former shipyards that once dominated the banks of the River Wear in this working-class city of 275,000 people.
Sunderland was a coal trading port, had its own collieries, was a glassmaking centre and boasted a major brewery.
The heavy industry has largely evaporated, though the docks are still going and ships’ horns echo amongst the cranes.
– ‘Anti-elite feeling’ –
Besides its current carmaking prowess, Sunderland’s pride now rests on its football team.
Despite two straight relegations to the third-tier League One, the Black Cats still draw huge crowds to games at their 49,000-seater Stadium of Light, built on the site of a disused coal mine.
On match days, the stadium roar drifts throughout Sunderland’s streets.
“Sunderland is a city where people feel quite rooted, with a strong sense of community,” said Peter Hayes, the university’s senior lecturer in politics.
“That perhaps makes them feel a little bit less cosmopolitan,” he told AFP.
“There’s a kind of anti-elite feeling in Sunderland,” he said, explaining the Leave vote — which went against Japanese automaker Nissan’s preference.
“If we leave the EU on bad terms, there are very serious economic problems that Sunderland is going to face,” he added, saying that if Nissan shifted production to Europe, it would be a “disaster”.
Britain’s largest car factory employs more than 7,000 workers and builds 500,000 vehicles per year, including the Juke, Qashqai and electric Leaf models. Some 55 percent are exported tariff-free to the EU.
Stephen O’Brien, a city councillor for the pro-EU opposition Liberal Democrats, said a no-deal Brexit’s effect on the city’s manufacturing would be “more devastating than losing the pits and the boat industry”.
– ‘Out on a limb’ –
Strolling along Roker Beach, a sweeping bay where kayakers brave the chilly North Sea, 67-year-old Brian Halse said: “It’s just a shambles. I did vote for Brexit. I would like us to go out. I think we’re better off by ourselves.
“I like (Prime Minister) Theresa May but nobody’s backing her the way they should. We should all stick together and go out the best way we can.”
Ronnie Quinn, 60, picking litter on the riverbank by the Wearmouth Bridge, said MPs were “acting like children” instead of upholding the referendum result.
“I voted to leave — and we won. The country’s made a choice and they should all be working together to shift Britain out,” he said.
“I would prefer no deal. The country did all right before the EU.”
But Liz Sulaiman, 74, out walking her dog on the seafront, said she was more worried about the effects of a potential no-deal Brexit on her grandchildren.
“Sunderland’s already not doing so well so I don’t think it’s going to do any better,” the housewife said.
“You’re going to lose a lot of jobs. We don’t need that in the northeast. It’s all happening in the south; they don’t seem to care about us. We’re just out on a limb and if we lose Nissan, we lose an awful lot.”
© 2019 AFP