BREXIT UPDATE 3:

THE BRADY AMENDMENT:  CLUTCHING AT A STRAW

Nineteen amendments were tabled for yesterday’s parliamentary debate on Theresa May’s Plan B (which is the same as her Plan A).  The Speaker selected seven amendments for debate and vote.  Of these, only two passed.  The five that were defeated are listed with comments at the end of this update.  The two that passed were:

1) The Spelman/Dromey Amendment.  This is a cross-party amendment put forward by the Conservative MP Dame Caroline Spelman and the Labour MP Jack Dromey.  It rules out No Deal by adding to the PM’s motion: “rejects the United Kingdom leaving the European Union without a  Withdrawal Agreement and a Framework for the Future Relationship”.  This narrowly passed: 318 for: 310 against.  It is, however, non-binding.

2)  The Brady Amendment, put forward by the backbench Conservative MP Sir Graham Brady, Chair of the influential 1922 Committee.  This amendment calls for the Northern Ireland backstop to be “replaced with alternative arrangements to avoid a hard border”.  Theresa May ordered all Conservative MPs to back the Brady Amendment.   It again passed narrowly: for: 317; against 301.

The Spelman/Dromey Amendment rules out No Deal, so is a defeat for Theresa May.  However, it is non-binding, so she will probably ignore it and continue her strategy of running down the clock by putting forward her deal as the only alternative to No Deal (apart from revoking Article 50 and bringing about No Brexit).  But Jeremy Corbyn, in his speech after the voting on the amendments, said that, as a result of the passing of the Spelman/Dromey Amendment, he is now willing to enter into talks with Theresa May.  This is almost the only new development that has emerged from this whole Alice-in-Wonderland-like exercise.  He has met May today and says they had a “serious” exchange of views.  But the passing of this amendment does not tell us anything new –as the BBC correspondent Chris Morris commented last night: “Everyone already knew that the majority of MPs are opposed to No Deal”.

Theresa May has clutched at the Brady Amendment as though at a lifeline.  She managed to get the DUP and the right-wing Brexiteers to vote for it, which was why it passed.  She is presenting its success as a victory for her fictitious Plan B and a personal triumph (and has been backed up in this by some of the mainstream media). She claimed in her speech after the vote that she has now been given a mandate by Parliament to return to Brussels, tell the EU leaders that the British Parliament has made it clear what it wants in order to vote in favour of the deal and ask them to replace the backstop.

But the Brady Amendment is a straw, not a lifeline.  During the debate on this amendment, one MP asked Sir Graham over and over again to specify what he meant by “alternative arrangements”; he was unable to provide a specific answer.  And above all the EU negotiators and the Irish government have made it absolutely clear that they have no intention of renegotiating the backstop.  They say they have discussed “alternative arrangements” – such as complicated technological solutions –many times and ruled them out.

The point of the exercise seems to be to buy more time, keep running down the clock and achieve a temporary rapprochement with the DUP and the right wing Conservative Brexiteers over the backstop. May has been trying to renegotiate the backstop ever since it became clear that her deal was going to be massively defeated; the only change now is that she wants to scrap the backstop entirely and replace it with something else – quite what no one knows.

On December 10, the Guardian reported that the Irish Prime Minister, Leo Varadkar, had told reporters “We ended up with the backstop and this withdrawal agreement because of the red lines the UK laid down along the way.”  Without Theresa May’s “red lines”, there would have been no  backstop.  Varadkar added:

“The withdrawal agreement, including the Irish backstop, is the only agreement on the table.  It took over a year-and-a-half to negotiate and has the support of 28 governments and it’s not possible to reopen any aspect of that agreement without reopening all aspects of it”.[1]

And the Irish government repeated today its unchanged position.[2]  The EU’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, said today that the Irish backstop is “part and parcel” of the UK’s Brexit deal and will not be renegotiated.[3]

Corbyn’s proposal to keep the UK permanently in a customs union and with a strong relationship with the Single Market would mean there would be no need for a backstop.  May still refuses to shift her “red lines” — which include an insistence that Britain will not remain in a permanent customs union or in a permanently close relationship with the Single Market —  because she has aligned herself with the Conservative right-wing Brexiteers.

What is scheduled to happen next?  In her opening speech yesterday, May said that if/when a new deal is agreed upon, she will present it to Parliament for debate and vote as soon as possible.  If a new deal has not been negotiated by February 13, she will make a statement to the House of Commons on that day and table an amendable motion, so that more amendments can be debated and voted on the next day, Valentine’s Day.  So for the immediate future it looks like more of the same – continuing to run down the clock till March 29 in a doomed attempt to force Parliament to accept her deal.

ADDENDUM:   THE FIVE DEFEATED AMENDMENTS

Apart from the Blackford Amendment, they were all defeated by fairly small margins – 20 to 30 votes.  But they all involve an extension of the leaving date and discussion of a second referendum – the defeats indicate that MPs are on the whole not supportive of a second referendum.

1) Jeremy Corbyn’s amendment, backed by the Shadow Cabinet.  This asked for time to be granted for Parliament to debate and vote on different options to prevent Britain leaving the EU without a deal.  These options included Corbyn’s own Brexit deal proposals (Britain to stay in a permanent customs union with the EU, a strong single market relationship) and a second referendum.  This amendment was predictably defeated: 296 for: 327 against.

2)  The  Blackford Amendment.  Put forward by the leader of the Scottish National Party in Westminster, Ian Blackford, it called for an extension of Article 50 (ie the leaving date to be prolonged beyond March 29), No Deal to be ruled out and emphasised the significant role played by the different UK nations in the Brexit process.  This was heavily defeated: 39 for;  327 against.

3) The Grieve Amendment.  Put forward by the Conservative MP Dominic Grieve, a former  Attorney-General,  it was similar to the Corbyn amendment in asking for time for MPs to discuss a range of alternatives to May’s deal in order to prevent No Deal.  But the Grieve Amendment went further in trying to take legislation away from the government into the hands of Parliament, calling for “indicative votes” by MPs to decide on Brexit policy. It was defeated  by a fairly close margin: 301 for; 321 against.

4)  The Cooper Amendment, put forward by the “centrist” Labour MP Yvette Cooper.  This called for a new law that would provide an extension of Article 50 till December 31 2019, if a deal had still not been agreed by February 26.  This amendment had strong cross-party backing:  from former Conservative ministers Nick Boles and Oliver Letwin, a former Lib Dem minister, Norman Lamb and Ben Lake of Plaid Cymru.  Corbyn also decided to back it and ordered Labour MPs to vote for it.  However, Corbyn asked for the extension to be only for three months, not nine.  This seems to be a) because of the European Parliament elections, which are in May, though the new MEPs don’t take their seats till early July, so Brexit could be extended for three months till the end of June to prevent Britain being still in the EU when the new European Parliament begins; b) because three months would allow time for a General Election, which the Labour leadership still supports, whereas three months would not allow time for a second referendum, which is supported by many “centrist” Labour MPs such as Yvette Cooper.  This amendment was again defeated by a fairly close margin: 298 for; 321 against. Interestingly, 14 rebel Labour MPs voted against it.  They clearly wanted to quash extensions of Article 50 and the push for a second referendum (with which the extensions of the leaving date  are associated).

5)  The Reeve Amendment: put forward by the Labour MP Rachel Reeve, it again called for an extension of the leaving date, but without specifying a date.  It was defeated by a fairly close margin:  290 for; 322 against.

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[1] https://www.theguardian.com/politics/blog/live/2018/dec/10/brexit-deal-vote-latest-theresa-may-ecj-government-says-ecj-ruling-irrelevant-because-uk-leaving-eu-anyway-politics-live?page=with:block-5c0e6d16e4b01d1e859e87a4

[2] https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2019/jan/30/irelands-deputy-pm-simon-coveney-we-will-not-be-threatened

[3] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-47061650