Brexit no clearer now than before yesterday’s vote

Prime Minister Theresa May’s famous phrase, “Brexit means Brexit” could come back to haunt her after Parliament took control of the Brexit process and is altering the meaning of the term. Credit: By M-SUR .

In an effort to bring clarity to the Brexit process and to unlock the stalemate between Parliament and Government, Members of the United Kingdom’s Parliament (MPs) voted yesterday to take control of the process. But it remains unclear how this process will play out and whether there will be any greater clarity.

MPs voted 329 to 302 to back an amendment put forward by Conservative MP Sir Oliver Letwin that will allow Parliament to vote on alternative Brexit plans, known as indicative votes. Even so, clarity remains elusive as professional Brexit commentators are still left asking, “what just happened?” and “what does the U.K. voting public now think?”

The public’s mood, according to research from the National Centre for Social Research, could be changing. A survey of some 2,654 voters shows that 80 percent of voters believe that May’s deal is a bad agreement. Only 6 percent believe the U.K. will get a good deal, and that 55 percent would now vote to remain (in the European Union, or EU) compared to 45 percent that want to exit the EU.

Sir John Curtice, a research fellow at the centre, said, “The voters that the Prime Minister is trying to satisfy by trying to implement their wish to leave the EU are now as critical as those that voted to remain in regard to how the Government handled the negotiation.”

He added that trying to convince MPs that her deal is the only way of meeting the wishes of “leave” voters is “rather more difficult” when those voters themselves do not back her view.

The majority of the public would, however, vote the same way in another referendum, but the small lead is in part because leave voters are concerned about the economic consequences to leaving. Furthermore, there were 14 million voters that did not vote on the issue in 2016. According to the poll, they want to remain in the EU by a margin of 2 to 1, according to Curtice and that could swing the vote decisively in the favor of “remain in the EU” if a second referendum were to be held.

With the public mood possibly changing. it remains unclear what this means for the Brexit process. To understand the vote in Parliament, it is necessary to view yesterday’s events in context. To do so means going back to the beginning. Following the 2016 referendum, which resulted in a decision to leave the EU, Theresa May became Prime Minister after the prime minister at the time of the vote (David Cameron, who backed remaining in the EU) resigned following the vote. May then needed to negotiate the withdrawal agreement before agreeing a trade deal with the European Union. This was to be a two-stage negotiation.

May, however, declared that “Brexit means Brexit” after the referendum. May backed a strict interpretation of the referendum and the deal she negotiated reflected that view.

In the meantime, May wanted a larger working majority and called for a general election, believing she would win easily against what many considered a damaged Labour Party opposition. However, that election went badly for May and she lost her majority. As a result, May needed to deal with the MPs of the Protestant Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) of Northern Ireland to support her government.

After two years of negotiations with the EU. May was due to return her withdrawal deal for scrutiny and approval by the House of Commons in December 2018, but it was clear that MPs did not approve of her deal and May delayed the vote. Moreover, May’s minority Government is propped up by the 10 MPs of the DUP and they were, and remain, vehemently opposed to the Irish backstop.

MPs on the right, more likely to be “leave” voters, favor the Irish backstop, the mechanism designed to allow the uninterrupted flow of goods. The backstop plan is essentially a legally binding insurance policy to ensure there is no hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland regardless of the outcome of future trade talks between the U.K. and the EU. No hard border was negotiated in the Good Friday Agreement, which brought peace to Ireland after many years of conflict in which the border was considered a particular flashpoint.

On the left (generally speaking the “remain” side of the Brexit debate), believed the deal would have an adverse effect on jobs, working conditions and investment in the U.K. and also opposed the deal.

Many on the right wing of the debate wanted to manuever a “no deal Brexit” and for the U.K. to trade on World Trade Organization rules. A particularly strong faction on the right was a group of Conservative MPs known as the European Research Group (ERG). They wanted to take back control of the decision-making process from the EU, returning powers to the U.K. Parliament. More moderate MPs wanted to have another referendum, while others preferred a customs union, allowing the U.K. to have a close relationship with the EU, but not requiring an Irish backstop and also not allowing the U.K. to make separate trade deals from the EU.

As a result of these divisions in Parliament there has been no majority in favor of any of the options available – a no deal Brexit, May’s deal, revocation of Article 50 (the instrument invoked to legally launch Brexit), a customs union or a second referendum.

May finally brought her deal to Parliament for scrutiny in mid-January, amid accusations by opposition MPs that she was running down the clock to the Brexit date (this Friday, 29 March), in order to force MPs to back her deal. Parliament voted by a majority of 230 votes to reject May’s deal in January, the heaviest defeat for a Government in the U.K.’s long Parliamentary histor

More negotiations took place with the EU offering assurances on the Irish backstop, but crucially no legally binding changes to May’s withdrawal agreement. When May returned her deal to Parliament for a second meaningful vote on 12 March (after again delaying the vote) it was again rejected, this time by 149 votes, the fourth-largest margin in history.

Throughout the voting process May has argued that the only options available to Parliament are her deal or no deal. That was presented as a binary choice in the knowledge that there was only one consensus in Parliament, that no deal was disastrous and to be avoided at all costs. MPs interpreted May’s government, and May herself, as attempting to bully Parliament to accept her deal.

May resolved to return her deal to Parliament for a third meaningful vote. However, the Speaker of the House ruled after the second meaningful vote that this would only be possible, according to Parliamentary convention, if there were changes to the substantive motion (she could not return with the same deal).

The House was primed for a showdown between the Speaker and the Prime Minister, but this week May admitted that there was not sufficient support in Parliament for her deal and she scrapped that vote.

In the meantime, MPs lost patience with May’s approach to Brexit and this week voted to take control of the Parliamentary agenda, normally set by the government, to allow themselves to debate and vote on alternative versions of Brexit. Those debates will begin on Wednesday, 27 March and could carry through to Monday of next week, 1 April, coincidentally All Fools Day in the U.K.

Following the loss of the second meaningful vote Parliament held two more votes. The first ruled out leaving the EU without a deal, though this vote was not legally binding. The second vote required May to ask the EU for an extension to Article 50 at an EU leaders’ summit.

May requested an extension to 30 June 2019, but the EU rejected this and instead told May that she had to get support for her deal from Parliament by 12 April. If that support is given by Parliament, an extension up to the European Parliamentary elections on 22 May will be allowed. If not, the U.K. will leave the EU on 12 April or it will need a longer extension and it will need to enter candidates for the EU elections.

May resolved to bring her deal back to Parliament this week, but as noted she could not raise sufficient support for the deal. Others, like some in the EU’s 27 remaining members. believe that a no deal Brexit is now more likely.

Parliament, however, has clearly lost patience with the May Government and has wrested control with up to seven or eight proposals to be debated and voted on tomorrow (and possibly on 1 April). May could try again to return her deal for a third vote, though without the support of the DUP it is unlikely to carry, even as some ERG members are themselves coming to the conclusion that there is a danger that Brexit could be halted altogether.

What is clear is that whatever Parliament decides it will need Government to push through the new direction, something that May has said she may refuse to do. If this situation arises it is unclear what the response of Parliament could or would be. With such a power struggle between Government and Parliament, it is unclear whether May could continue as prime minister.

“Remainers,” for their part, believe that there is an opportunity to push for a second referendum and the Labour Party is now calling for a “confirmatory vote” that would rubber stamp any decision taken by Parliament.

For the ERG and the Brexit supporters this could kill the debate because the research shows that the electorate has become exhausted by the process of the withdrawal agreement, and the fear of negotiating ‘the hard part’ – the trade deal.

If Brexit still means Brexit it is becoming less clear what that phrase means and what the route to Brexit could be.