What next for Brexit?

30 Jan 2019

Following the latest votes in the House of Commons, our head of insights and EU engagement, Patrick Brown provides our latest Brexit blog.

What next for Brexit on the morning after the night before?

It was billed as a night of high drama in the House of Commons, but in the cold light of day it appears that parliamentarians are little closer to deciding what manner of exit from the European Union they could support.

Last night the House of Commons debated a series of amendments to a Government motion setting out what it intends to do next to secure a Withdrawal Agreement – the ‘deal’ setting out the manner in which the UK leaves the EU, and any transitional arrangements.

MPs rejected two amendments (tabled by Labour MP Yvette Cooper and Conservative MP Dominic Grieve) that would have given them a greater opportunity to shape the Brexit process.

The only significant amendment to pass was tabled by Sir Graham Brady, requiring the Irish backstop, designed as a fall back to prevent a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, to be replaced with some form of other, unspecified, ‘alternative arrangements’ (e.g. a legal codicil) with the provision that the Withdrawal Agreement would be supported if this change was made.

This amendment was supported by Government – unusually, given that it runs counter to the deal that it had already agreed with the EU – the Democratic Unionist Party and the overwhelming majority of Conservative MPs.

Yesterday, an amendment tabled by Caroline Spellman MP that sought to rule out ‘No Deal’ was agreed, but to no legal effect. The challenge for MPs is now to set out not only what they oppose, but to find a proposal to avoid No Deal that a majority could support.

How did we get here?

On 15 January, the House of Commons voted down the Withdrawal Agreement and its associated Political Agreement (the joint heads-of-terms agreed between the EU and UK negotiators on what a future relationship between the UK and EU might look like).

The EU Withdrawal Act 2018 required that Government spell out what it intends to do next, and then to move a motion ‘in neutral terms’.  The Prime Minister made this statement on 21 January, setting out an alternative plan for EU withdrawal (which looked very much like the original deal that MPs voted down). 

So, what happens next?

The Prime Minister has said that she will reopen discussions with Brussels on the Withdrawal Agreement. Yet EU negotiators and leaders of several Member States (including some with whom the UK shares strong ties like the Netherlands) have already questioned whether any more can be offered over and above what has been already. The Prime Minister’s strategy is fundamentally reliant on the EU’s willingness to reopen negotiations, with time running short and no obvious solution to the impasse.

This was likely the motivation for the Prime Minister’s appeal to the Commons and across the party spectrum, as this affords the soundest rationale for granting a concession that has not been previously considered tenable by EU negotiators.

The Prime Minister also committed to consult the Commons more often and to give greater assurances that the UK will not lower environmental standards or employment rights, and that if the EU raises those standards, the UK should follow.

The Prime Minister confirmed that the Government would hope to bring back a revised deal on or before 14 February or to give MPs a vote on that day. 

In so doing, the Prime Minister made the point that the only way to avoid ‘No Deal’ would be for MPs to vote for a deal.  The Prime Minister is right there; as things stand, No Deal may triumph by default if inertia takes over.