The first quarter of 2019 was always going to be a bumpy affair, with the unavoidable deadline of March 2019 and the UK’s departure from the EU approaching fast. Key decisions and choices which will affect the UK for a generation still need to be made and the entire Brexit process rests on what happens in the Westminster Parliament over the next few weeks.
Against that backdrop MPs returned to Westminster after the Christmas break and immediately sparks began flying.
The Withdrawal Agreement negotiated between the UK and the EU will be voted on next week and at this stage there appears to be no parliamentary majority for it. That could change however given how fast-moving events are in Westminster.
At the time of writing the government narrowly lost two votes this week, both aimed at tying the government’s hands if, as expected, it loses the vote next week.
The first was an amendment to the finance bill which passed by 303 votes to 296. It stops the government from being able to raise certain taxes and take other financial steps if there is no deal, unless Parliament had explicitly backed the UK leaving the EU without a deal. Paradoxically, by making the logistics of a no deal scenario more difficult and limiting the way the government can respond, MPs have potentially made the impact of it much worse. Given that no deal is currently the default scenario it is, as Sir Humphrey would say - “an interesting” move.
A second amendment passed on Wednesday which shortened the deadline by which the government must make a statement to the House of Commons if the meaningful vote is lost.
That amendment, which prevailed with a majority of 11, commits the Prime Minister to returning to Parliament within three days to outline the government’s next moves if the vote is lost on the deal next week. Previously the government had up to three weeks to respond, potentially allowing the government time to run down the clock towards a no deal Brexit.
Both these amendments appear to be focused on the same thing, to stop the government pursuing a no deal Brexit if the deal is lost. It proves that there is no parliamentary majority for such an outcome but it also demonstrates that there are very few parliamentary levers that MPs can pull to genuinely stop a no deal Brexit if the government decides to go for it.
These are extraordinary times in Parliament. Never before has a government tried to pass an international treaty, which it was mandated to negotiate to comply with a referendum result, which itself divided the country and without a parliamentary majority to do so. As a result the unwritten constitution is fraying, as was demonstrated on Wednesday when the amendment described above was chosen for the vote by the Speaker, John Bercow against both parliamentary convention and the apparent advice of his clerks.
However this week’s events may help the government, as the amendments passed do seem to point to an almighty attempt by parliament to stop a no deal Brexit, which may persuade some rebel Conservative MPs to back the deal.
In addition, the government was reported to be prepared to accept two amendments to the withdrawal deal. One proposed by Labour MPs which would commit the UK to following EU law in a variety of areas including workers’ rights and environmental and social law. This appears to be an attempt to get Labour MPs to at least not oppose the deal, which is the government’s only realistic path to victory.
However that could embolden the rebellion on the Conservative side as perceived EU over-regulation in many of these areas was a key driver of the Brexit vote in the first place.
To try to appease rebel Conservative MPs the government is also reported to be accepting an amendment by Hugo Swire which would allow parliament to vote on extending the transition period (due to last until 2020) or entering the backstop. And to limiting the backstop to only one year to avoid the UK being trapped in it, which is the major concern of many MPs.
Whether either of these amendments will make a difference to the final vote remains to be seen, however the major problem is that if the whole agreement is passed on the basis of the inclusion of the second amendment then the government would have to return to Brussels to renegotiate it - as this was exactly the point that the EU was most concerned by (that the backstop couldn’t be time limited and the UK couldn’t unilaterally leave it)
We would therefore effectively be back at square one as it was this point that delayed the negotiations for significant periods in the autumn.
With just ten weeks to go until the UK is due to leave the EU, the government and British Parliament is facing difficult choices, none of the possible solutions appear to have a parliamentary majority at this stage but without an active decision supporting one of them in the next ten weeks the UK will leave without a deal.
There is no wish in the EU to force the UK out without a deal when there is still the possibility of a deal being agreed, but the EU is unlikely to agree to the changes to the backstop needed to satisfy the British Parliament.
By next week, Brexit may be all over bar the shouting if the withdrawal deal passes unamended. In which case there will be an orderly exit at the end of March and the UK will enter the transition period and negotiations will start on the future trade deal, but with the backstop looming large.
However if the vote falls, everything is back on the table and it is impossible to predict where this will end up.