A few weeks ago, one of the BBC’s journalists, Chris Mason, stood in front of the Houses of Parliament and said the immortal words- ‘Looking at things right now, I haven’t got the foggiest idea what is going to happen in the coming weeks’. It rapidly went viral, as people applauded him for saying out loud what has come to be considered the truth. We simply don’t know where things can go with the Brexit agreement.
The only certainty remaining was that there would be a vote on the 11th of December. It was billed as the meaningful vote which would ratify any deal Theresa May had got back from Brussels. However, having spent the past week insisting that this vote was going to take place, she did a u-turn which has earnt her criticism from all sides. The reason- the fundamental reality that this was a vote she was destined to lose, using conservative estimates, by a margin of over 100.
Steve Baker- a Conservative MP and senior member of the European Research Group (ERG)- tweeted today, ‘This is essentially a defeat of the Prime Minister’s Brexit deal. The terms of the WA (Withdrawal Agreement) were so bad that they didn’t dare put it to parliament for a vote. This isn’t the mark of a stable government or a strong plan.’ Portsmouth’s MP, Stephen Morgan, has said, ‘The government are in office, but not in power’.
Arch-Brexiteer, Jacob Rees-Mogg, Chairman of the ERG, had stronger words, saying she should ‘govern or quit’. Meanwhile, multiple parties are lobbying Jeremy Corbyn to trigger a vote of no-confidence in the government, with the Liberal Democrats and SNP confirming in the Commons that they would support it.
“The House of Commons Twitter account and legal experts also confirmed that the deadline of the 21st of January for the vote was now superseded by the statement issued by the prime minister. This means there are no deadlines for the vote. She could conceivably choose to hold the vote as late as the 28th of March, the day on which we are officially due to leave.”
The drama began about midday, when the first leaks started emerging that she might be about to change course. One minister was on BBC Politics defending her deal in full anticipation of a vote on Tuesday. In the middle of the show he was informed that the plan he had been defending was no longer in existence.
At 3.30pm, the prime minister addressed the House of Commons, setting out her reasoning and plan to ensure that the Brexit deal she has negotiated with the European Union reaches enough votes to pass. The contentious issue is what is referred to as the Irish Backstop. This is a critical passage in the agreement which safeguards the Irish border in line with the Good Friday Agreement, should a deal on the future relationship not be forthcoming by the end of 2020. In reality, the likelihood of the Backstop coming into effect is incredibly slim, with both the EU and UK saying that it is not something they want to be the case.
However, the language used in the PM’s deal which affirms both sides’ commitment to this not happening uses words like ‘good faith’ which is not legally binding and therefore not enough to convince the Eurosceptics in her party that the EU will complete a deal, leaving them locked in the Backstop. Even worse, the Backstop has no clause to get the UK out of it if it is triggered. This is proving to be a tough sell to May’s Party, and enough MPs had confirmed they would vote against the deal, as well as the DUP, who are very sensitive to anything which affects Northern Ireland, that the deal was certainly to be defeated. It is at times like this that governing as a minority is really felt.
So, instead Theresa May will be returning to Brussels, to try and get a firmer commitment from the EU Commission that the Backstop will not be used and if it is, there is a method for parliament to extract the UK from it. Whether she will succeed is up in the air. The Commission, The Irish Taoiseach and other member states have publicly confirmed that the agreement is the full extent of their concessions. However private sources have confirmed that they are sympathetic to Theresa May’s position so there yet a chance that she will recover from this, which at the moment certainly seems to be her most precarious situation so far.
As for the meaningful vote in the Commons, Theresa May declined to set a date on when this would occur, despite furious requests for one by MPs. The House of Commons Twitter account and legal experts also confirmed that the deadline of the 21st of January for the vote was now superseded by the statement issued by the prime minister. This means there are no deadlines for the vote. She could conceivably choose to hold the vote as late as the 28th of March, the day on which we are officially due to leave. However this is sure to outrage MP’s. It is far more likely that this will now occur after the New Year.
Still, this is not confirmed, and all depends on when she feels it is likely to get through the Commons. It is also likely that kicking the proverbial can down the road will put pressure on MPs to vote for the deal, as the alternative is the UK crashing out without a deal at all. This forcing of hands is also likely to infuriate MPs and as each day goes on, it becomes more and more likely that 48 letters end up on the desk of Graham Brady, Chairman of the 1922 Committee.
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