If you’re currently lost in a sea of political jargon, trying to decipher what on Earth is going on with the state of the Brexit negotiations and what it means for all of us, then this article is here to help. Sit tight, take a deep breath and I will break down exactly what has gone on in the last couple of months, where we are likely heading in the subsequent months and what is the likely outcome of all of this.
On the 29th of March, 2017 the United Kingdom invoked Article 50 of the Treaty of The European Union, beginning the formal process for it to leave. This process was scheduled to last two years and currently, if no agreement is reached and no extension agreed, the UK will crash out of the EU with no deal on the 29th of March 2019.
As of now, the UK has finished its negotiations with the EU and on the 25th of November, 2018 they published their 599 page Withdrawal Agreement, clarifying a number of important issues such as trade relations, freedom of movement and their solution to Irish border problem. However, since its publication Theresa May has struggled to pass the withdrawal agreement through the House of Commons, with MPs having first voted down the bill by a margin of 402 – 232 on the 15th of January, 2019. A slightly revised version was voted down again by a lesser margin of 391- 242 on the 12th of March, 2019.
One of the key reasons for this rejection is the Government’s solution to create a backstop to solve the Irish border problem. The problem itself stems from the Republic of Ireland staying in the European Union, while Northern Ireland leaves with the United Kingdom, creating a land border between one European Union state and one non-European Union state. Normally a hard border would be implemented so that goods could be checked going back and forth across the border, thereby ensuring they meet the new, differing safety standards between the European Union and the rest of the United Kingdom after Brexit. However, placing physical infrastructure on a hard border in Ireland will prove impossible as The Good Friday agreement – created to end centuries of violence and bloodshed – explicitly prohibits this.
The backstop itself is a means of ensuring that a hard border is never erected and it would mean that after a transition period, if no further agreement is reached with the European Union then the United Kingdom would enter a “single customs territory,” with the European Union. The important part to this is that while the United Kingdom would be in that “single customs territory,” Northern Ireland would be forced to align itself with extra rules of the single market in order to ensure the border remains open. This has posed a problem for two main reasons, first, Northern Ireland would follow different rules to the rest of the United Kingdom and second, we could not leave the backstop unilaterally, we would need EU approval to do so. Its worth noting there are also other problems attached to the backstop, but for simplicity’s sake those are the main ones.
So far, aside from vague promises of “technology,” there have been no real substantiative solutions to this problem, and despite Theresa May seeking revisions on the backstop issue with the European Union last Monday, her Attorney General, Geoffrey Cox, confirmed the same problem still remained. In his words, that “the United Kingdom would have … no internationally lawful means of exiting the Protocol’s arrangements, save by agreement.”
So far we are caught up to around the 12th of March, 2019, when May’s second “meaningful vote” on her Withdrawal Agreement was defeated in the House of Commons by a margin of 149, in part due to the previous advice from her Attorney General, and that now brings us to yesterday.
Yesterday the initial plan was for the Government to put forward a motion that would reject the possibility of leaving without a deal on the 29th of March, 2019. An amendment to this was then added by Conservative MP Caroline Spelman which went much further, ruling out the possibility of no deal in at any time in the future. Spelman herself initially tried to withdraw this amendment but Labour backbencher Yvette Cooper pushed it forward instead.
The Spelman amendment subsequently passed by a narrow margin of 312 – 308 and chaos followed from the Government. After this amendment passed May’s government instigated a last minute three line whip against its own motion in a bid to keep the possibility of no deal alive, however, they still lost by 321 to 278 votes. In layman’s terms, May’s government tried at the last minute to get all Conservative MPs to vote against their own proposal, effectively advocating for no deal, but they still lost and thus Parliament rejected no deal now and at any time in the future.
To further compound this, 13 members of the government abstained on the whip after being told they could keep their jobs by an aide close to Theresa May. In any traditional government they would usually be sacked for such a mutiny but with how precarious May’s grip on power currently is they were allowed to remain. A quote from one Tory MP nicely summed up the chaos of last night, “That’s it. We’re done. There is no Government. Just people occupying offices, sipping lattes and pretending. And it’s all her fault.”
It is worth stating that the rejection of a no deal outcome by Parliament yesterday is not legally binding and no deal remains the default option if no alternative is agreed by the 29th of March, 2019, but it does send a clear message to the government.
However, that now brings us to the present. As of today, Parliament has voted on an extension to Article 50 and on a second referendum additionally, by all accounts Theresa May is planning to bring her Withdrawal Agreement back to parliament around next week, for a third time.
The motion for a second referendum, put forward by Sarah Wollaston of The Independent Group, failed by a vote of 85 – 334. But, it is worth noting that Labour MPs were all instructed to abstain or vote against, with shadow Brexit secretary Keith Starmer citing a “question of timing” as the issue rather than the notion itself. After this, amendments from Powell, Benn and Corbyn that would have taken further control away from the government were all voted down by margins of three, two and 16 respectively. However, the motion by the government to extend Article 50 by at least three months did pass the House of Commons by 413 – 202.
This does not necessarily mean that we will be able to extend the deadline for the Brexit negotiations however, as the European Union will have to approve our request to do so and Guy Verhofstadt, Brexit coordinator for the European Parliament said via Twitter that there would need to be a clear majority in the House of Commons for “something precise,” in order to grant an extension. So, where does this leave us now and what is likely to happen?
Well, for one, the European Union is likely to grand our extension request, if for no other reason than they don’t want to look like the ‘bad guy’ in this saga. After that the future is less certain. May’s Withdrawal Agreement is likely to be rejected by parliament again and with the clock running down yet again there is little to no time to negotiate any substantial changes to this agreement.
So, it seems the future of Brexit lies with the House of Commons. Of particular focus to this should be the Benn amendment, which only narrowly lost out by two votes. This would have seen Parliament take control of proceedings and find a solution to the Brexit impasse and if nothing substantially improves in the coming weeks then expect another motion of this type to be proposed and expect it to pass.
If Parliament does seize control of Brexit then its future lies with the Labour party. Jeremy Corbyn has been very reluctant to openly support a People’s Vote but his position may soon matter a lot more and if he whips Labour MPs we may see a similar motion to the Wollaston one pass. If Labour refuses to pivot to a People’s Vote, then with no other Brexit deal on the table and with Parliament clearly opposed to a no deal outcome, the odds of May’s comparably ‘soft’ Brexit passing increases substantially.
So in sum, it is likely Article 50 will be extended and we will have to endure multiple more months of Brexit related chaos. During this time, the future of Brexit will first lie in the hands of Parliament and then the Labour party. If Corbyn fully supports a People’s Vote then that could be a realistic outcome and it may lead to the revocation of Article 50, however, if he does not then May’s withdrawal agreement may yet find a way to squeeze through.
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