Brexit update from Grayling Manchester

Wednesday, 13th March 2019

Guest blog by Chris Peacock, Grayling Manchester

The second meaningful vote on the Prime Minister’s Brexit deal saw it defeated by 149 votes last night. This is significantly less than the 230 votes it was defeated by on the previous occasion in January, but is still the fourth biggest defeat of a Government ever.

Although the number of MPs who changed their vote to back the Prime Minister’s deal was smaller than most predictions, in private a significantly higher number of MPs were expressing how torn they were. Notably, a number of influential Conservative Brexiteers switched to support the PM’s deal, including David Davis, Graham Brady, Jonny Mercer, Nadine Dorries, Zac Goldsmith and Robert Halfon. However, the numbers remained far short of those needed to pass the deal and importantly, only one more Labour MP who benefited from the £1.6bn stronger towns fund for primarily Labour leave voting constituencies voted for the Prime Minister’s deal.

The Prime Minister instantly recommitted to holding further votes on whether or not to leave with no deal later today and then – should Parliament vote not to leave with no deal – a further vote tomorrow on whether to request an extension of Article 50.

As expected, Theresa May has said that tonight’s votes will be free votes on the Conservative benches. This means that Conservative MPs will be able to vote whichever way they want. Notably, it means that members of the Government will be free to vote against no deal – bringing to a formal end the line that “no deal is better than a bad deal” and avoiding any Government resignations in the immediate term. However, May did not indicate how the Government will whip on tomorrow’s vote on extending Article 50, and the Chair of the 1922 Group of Conservative backbench MPs, Graham Brady, quickly set out his belief that voting for an extension would be a breach of the Conservative Manifesto. Similarly, both tonight’s and tomorrow’s votes are amendable and there is no indication how or if the Government will whip on any amendments which the Speaker selects for a vote.

The Labour Party’s position remains equally unclear. Jeremy Corbyn’s response to the result mentioned the possibility of a general election and called for the Government to negotiate a Brexit based on his tests. However, despite Labour recently committing to campaign for a second referendum, Corbyn failed to mention this outcome in his speeches either before or after the vote. There will be intense pressure on Corbyn’s office to table an amendment calling for a second referendum but his language last night reinforces the widely held view that the Labour Party will not put all their efforts behind a second referendum.

Two amendments to tonight’s no deal vote have already gained traction. The first, tabled by Oliver Letwin, Yvette Cooper and Nick Boles removes any mention to the legal status quo of leaving on the 29th March and simply states that Parliament opposes leaving the EU without a deal. It seems to be intended to put political pressure on the Government but it will not have any legal meaning.

The second, tabled by Damien Green, calls for an extension of Article 50 until May 22nd at which point the UK would leave the EU. It then calls for the Government to offer a set of standstill transition arrangements to continue until no later than 30th December 2021, in order to enable the UK to continue negotiating. Two interpretations can be made of this amendment. The first is that it is effectively calling for a managed no deal process. The second is that it is effectively calling for a piecemeal new withdrawal agreement to be negotiated with the EU before May 22nd. The uncertainty of the amendment might help it gain a majority in Parliament but there is no indication that the EU would agree to either of the alternative interpretations of the amendment. Indeed, Michel Barnier effectively ruled out either interpretation by saying “no Withdrawal Agreement means no transition”.

The EU’s broader reaction to last night’s developments has been one of a lack of surprise. The official message is clear – that it is up to the UK to come forward with a solution. In the meantime, they are increasing their no deal preparedness. There is also a general expectation that the UK will come back to the EU requesting an extension to Article 50. However, a number of leaders, including Donald Tusk, President of the European Council, has said there would have to be a “credible justification” for extension. Furthermore, the most persistent briefings indicate the EU will only accept either a short extension until May or a much longer one of a year or more.

Where does this leave us? Although MPs are very likely to vote to rule out no deal, the form that vote will take and what, if any, amendments are made to the motion is unclear. Furthermore, regardless of the outcome, the legal status quo will still be that the UK leaves the EU on March 29th with or without a deal. One of the primary reasons for Brexiteers’ unwillingness to vote for the deal is that they are well aware that the March 29th deadline can only be extended by the Government. Furthermore, the Government then only has the choices of extending Article 50 in agreement with the EU – effectively delaying the date on which the UK leaves with or without a deal – or unilaterally revoking Article 50 and stopping Brexit altogether. Those who believe tonight will rule out ‘no deal’ are therefore relying on the Government acting due to political pressure or on Parliament taking control and passing legislation to force the Government to act.

The clear message from MPs is that time, and the pressure from business are also cutting through in Westminster. Carolyn Fairburn of the CBI responded to events last night by saying “Enough is enough… It’s time for Parliament to stop this circus”. However, so long as the votes in Parliament remain legally meaningless, certainty will remain elusive. Similarly, the last minute Brexit plans and compromises being sought by MPs often project the impression that a new deal could be negotiated within a matter of months. However, there is no clear reason these principles should not fall foul of the same practicalities which have beset May’s deal – namely negotiating with the EU, a split Parliament and the UK’s constitution. All this means the uncertainty continues. It also means another meaningful vote on the PM’s Brexit deal before the 29th of March is not out of the question.