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What happens now May’s Brexit plan B has been defeated?



LONDON — Theresa May suffered another Commons defeat on Thursday after pro-Brexit Conservative MPs torpedoed a motion designed to express support for her Brexit plan by abstaining from voting.

Some Conservative MPs were concerned that the wording of the motion could inadvertently take the prospect of no deal off the table and refused to endorse it, with Labour’s opposition to the motion ensuring defeat for the prime minister.

The defeat represents a further humiliation for the prime minister, whose government has already been found in contempt of parliament, and who in January suffered the biggest parliamentary defeat in modern British history.

So what happens next on Brexit?

1. ‘High noon’: the February deadline

Tory MPs Anna Soubry and Jacob Rees-Mogg
Ian Forsyth/Getty Images

Theresa May secured support in January for a decision to ask the EU to replace the contentious Irish backstop in her Brexit deal with “alternative arrangements,” something which many Conservative MPs have insisted on.

But EU negotiators have repeatedly indicated they will not renegotiate the Brexit plan that both sides agreed last year, meaning the prime minister is unlikely to secure the concessions she is seeking.

If, as is likely, the prime minister hasn’t brought MPs a negotiated deal by February 27, she has promised parliament another opportunity to vote on a further motion.

That motion will be amendable, which means that MPs will have the opportunity to put forward their own options for Brexit to see which can command a majority of support.

The big one to look out for is the reincarnated version of the Cooper amendment, the original version of which lost by a narrow margin in January.

This amendment — which has been published — will say that if parliament hasn’t approved a deal by March 13, the prime minister must choose either to move a motion which says that the house approves leaving the EU without a deal, or a motion which says the House agrees to the prime minister seeking an Article 50 extension. If the prime minister chooses the first, and it is rejected, she must table the second.

Many MPs believe this plan as the best means of preventing a no-deal Brexit. It lost by a margin of 23 votes last time, so it would require some to change their minds. The Labour frontbench has already indicated that it would support it.

Should it pass, it would also fundamentally reshape the Brexit debate. Chancellor Philip Hammond has billed the day as “High Noon.”

At the moment, some Tory MPs who are opposed to the prime minister’s proposed deal are happy to keep on opposing it because they are relaxed about the prospect of a no-deal Brexit.

But faced with a straight choice between the prospect of May’s deal and a potentially lengthy delay to Brexit, the amendment could actually have the effect of bouncing Tory MPs who are currently opposed to her deal into supporting it.

2. A renegotiated deal

The EU’s chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier speaks to Theresa May
Jack Taylor/Getty Images

No substantial progress on Brexit is expected in February. Instead, EU officials are pointing to the European Council on March 21 and 22 as a moment when a new deal is likely to come together, according to Mujtaba Rahman, a political analyst at Eurasia Group.

The UK is scheduled to leave the EU on March 29. That raises the very significant prospect that May is attempting to run down the clock until March to present parliament with a last-minute choice to back her deal or face the prospect of no-deal (the success or failure of the new Cooper amendment is crucial to whether this would happen).

3. The meaningful vote

Britain’s Prime Minister Theresa May addresses the House of Commons in London, March 14, 2018.
Parliament TV / Reuters

Whether or not March European Council summit is the final deadline for a renegotiated deal — one which is still likely to fall short of the concessions Theresa May is demanding — she will need hold another meaningful vote on her Brexit plan before March 29.

Whether or not that vote passes will depend on whether the prime minister secures enough concessions from the EU to ensure that enough Conservative rebels come back on board, and whether opposition MPs break ranks to back the deal in order to prevent a hard no-deal Brexit.

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