Umm…what the hell was that all about? Yet another Brexit update

We sat around all day watching BBC Parliament so you don’t have to.

If you turned on the TV yesterday, you might well have been greeted by the image of the House of Commons speaker John Bercow bellowing “ayes to the left, noes to the right” like the world’s worst Stealers Wheel tribute act; screeching “ORDER!! ORDERRRRRRR” with the gravelling despair of a Dickensian villain struggling to find the nearest takeaway pizza on Deliveroo. Yep, yesterday there was yet another load of votes on Brexit, whereby a sea of Tories wobbling their heads about and jeering at more or less anything the opposition says, and an opposing bench-full of Labour politicians doing more or less the same thing went head to head. What was this hellish assembly in aid of, you might ask?

Well, MPs met yesterday to vote on a series of amendments to Theresa May’s previously-panned Withdrawal Bill. When the Prime Minister finally put her plan for exiting the EU to parliament earlier this month (after delaying a previous vote which was supposed to happen back in December) she suffered a historically embarrassing blow. A total majority of 230 MPs rejected May’s plan for Brexit; for context, that’s the worst defeat ever suffered by a British PM in parliament’s history.

Why was it rejected?

A big factor in the landslide rejection of Theresa May’s plan was the issue of Northern Ireland’s land border. According to the 1998 Good Friday Agreement – an integral moment in the Northern Ireland peace process – there are currently no physical borders or security checkpoints separating Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. Once the UK leaves the EU, this becomes impossible; goods and people moving between the two areas need to be checked at a border unless, of course, seamless trade laws can be agreed. The EU have been clear that, in order for Brexit negotiations to move forward, a safety net like the backstop first must be agreed to prevent a hard border ever happening.

As a last-ditch insurance policy, May’s withdrawal deal agreed that Northern Ireland could remain aligned to EU single market regulations indefinitely, until both sides agree that a trade solution has been found to prevent a hard border. In theory, reaching such an agreement could take years, and many Brexiteer MPs rejected the backstop because it effectively draws an invisible customs border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK. It’s also a big factor in why the DUP – who are in support of Northern Ireland being part of the United Kingdom, and help to prop up May’s majority – would not support the deal.

So, with the EU refusing to reopen further negotiations on this backstop, and the UK demanding an “alternative” solution – whatever the hell that is – well, what do we do next?

Deal or no deal?

With Theresa May’s Withdrawal Plan officially chucked into the trash, there are a few options left.  A lot of MPs across all parties want to reopen up negotiations with the EU, with lofty dreams of returning to Brussels to agree a better deal on the backstop. The large and unavoidable flaw in all of this wishful thinking? The EU say that they will not enter into any further negotiations with the UK.

Besides cancelling the entire Brexit shenanigans altogether or holding a second ‘People’s Vote’ referendum, there’s very little else that May can do in the event that the EU refuses to budge on what’s already been agreed. Parliament certainly won’t back her deal, so at this point, the only thing left on the table other than a negotiation miracle is a no-deal Brexit.

A no-deal Brexit is completely uncharted waters – it means that the UK will leave the EU with immediate effect on 29 March 2019. It would likely result in a huge amount of disruption, and border checks would be required at major ports like Calais. 70 trade deals with European countries would need renegotiating. And in the case of a no-deal Brexit, troops would most likely be deployed to the Irish border. Experts have also warned of other potential dangers of a no-deal Brexit; ranging from medication supply problems to widespread food shortages.

So, what did they actually decide yesterday?

Yesterday, MPs voted on several amendments.

  • They defeated an amendment led by Labour’s Rachel Reeves, which would extend Article 50 by two years in the event of no deal by 26 February
  • They passed Tory MP Graham Brady’s amendment, which proposes having the backstop “replaced with alternative arrangements to avoid a hard border”. The EU have already ruled this out, babe, but nice try.
  • SNP/Plaid Cymru amendment – which points out that Scottish and Welsh assemblies “voted overwhelmingly to reject the prime minister’s deal”, and asks for an Article 50 extension – was defeated

The most significant result is parliament’s rejection of Yvette Cooper’s amendment. The Labour Party MP put forward a proposal where – if passed – parliament could prevent a no-deal Brexit by extending Article 50. Article 50 is the period in which the UK is allowed to negotiate an exit deal. Labour’s front bench politicians supported the amendment to “reduce the threat of the chaos of a no deal”, but it was ultimately defeated thanks to a sizeable Labour rebellion.

Coupled with MPs voting to pass the Brady amendment, which would see May sent back to Brussels to negotiate an alternative arrangement for the Northern Ireland backstop, pro-Brexit supporters are billing the two results as a “lifeline” for Theresa May’s Withdrawal Agreement. Theresa May even started banging on about her “mandate”, which is rich from a politician who famously lost her majority in the last general election but there you go.

Anyway, according to the front page of the Daily Express, this supposedly represents one of “the most remarkable turnarounds in political history” – and hey, if your parliamentary kink is the ‘get it over with’ mentality – ushering in a potentially catastrophic period of no-deal chaos without any extra delay – then yes, this is a victory. The Guardian took a slightly less hyperbolic view: “May goes back to Brussels but EU says: nothing has changed”. And it’s true – Theresa May can bang on about mandates all she likes, but the facts speak for themselves. If the EU won’t negotiate, neither can she.

Anything else?

Oddly, MPs also voted in favour of another amendment which rejects a no-deal Brexit, without expanding further on how this might be achieved.  An advisory vote with legislative force, it’s a little bit like the original EU referendum!

TLDR?

OK so, in summary

Parliament still hates Theresa May’s Withdrawal Agreement, and doesn’t want to leave the EU with no deal. That said, it doesn’t want to take any further measures to ensure that no deal doesn’t happen.

Meanwhile, they want May to go and renegotiate something she originally suggested, with a bunch of EU representatives who won’t negotiate. Lets see how that one goes, eh?