BREXIT UPDATE 6:  THE VALENTINE’S DAY DEBATE: NOT A MASSACRE BUT NOT A LOVE-IN EITHER FOR THERESA MAY

The government motion put forward on Valentine’s Day for debate and vote was:

“This House welcomes the Prime Minister’s statement of 12th February, 2019; reiterates its support for the approach to leaving the EU expressed by this House on 29th January 2019; and notes that  discussions between the United Kingdom and the European Union on the Northern Ireland backstop are ongoing.”

Ten amendments were tabled, of which the Speaker selected three for vote and debate.  One of these, tabled by the Conservative Remainer MP Anna Soubry, had instructed the government to publish within seven days “the most recent official briefing document relating to business and trade on the implications of a no-deal Brexit presented to cabinet”.  But Anna Soubry withdrew her amendment after the government promised to publish the information.

So only two amendments were debated and voted on.  The first was tabled by the Labour front bench; the second by Ian Blackford, the Leader in Westminster of the Scottish National Party.

The Two Amendments and the Motion

1) The Labour Front Bench Amendment

Moved by Jeremy Corbyn, this was an attempt to stop Theresa May’s “Groundhog Day” strategy of running down the clock towards March 29 by constantly issuing amendable statements for debate and vote – a strategy that clearly aims to present MPs just before March 29 with a stark choice of either voting for her deal or crashing out of the EU without a deal (or of seeing Brexit revoked entirely).

The Labour amendment gave the government an ultimatum:  By February 27, there should either be a vote on a revised deal, or else a Minister should “make a written statement declaring that there is no longer an agreement in principle in the negotiations with the European Union” and table an amendable motion on “how the government proposes to proceed”.

The Labour front bench amendment was defeated by 322 votes to 306.  This was predictable, in view of the parliamentary arithmetic.

2) The Blackford Amendment

This sought to extend the Brexit leaving date by at least three months.  It was supported by the SNP and the Liberal Democrats (both parties are strongly Remain).  But most Labour MPs abstained, so it was heavily defeated: 93 in favour; 315 against.

3) The Motion

Here is the motion again:

“This House welcomes the Prime Minister’s statement of 12th February, 2019; reiterates its support for the approach to leaving the EU expressed by this House on 29th January 2019; and notes that  discussions between the United Kingdom and the European Union on the Northern Ireland backstop are ongoing.”

Anodyne though this motion looks at face-value, it was defeated: 258 in favour: 303 against.

Why was the motion defeated?

One reason was that the words “reiterates its support for the approach to leaving the EU expressed by this House on 29th January 2019” mean that the House of Commons reiterates its support for the two amendments passed on that day.  As was described in Brexit Update 3, these two amendments were 1) the Brady Amendment, which called for the backstop to be scrapped and replaced with “alternative arrangements” and 2) the Spelman/Dromey Amendment, which ruled out No Deal.

The wording, which implicitly includes the Spelman/Dromey Amendment, annoyed hard-line Brexiteers, who want what they call a “managed no-deal”; but the government refused to change the motion.  Theresa May was prepared to jeopardise her fragile rapprochement with the right-wing Brexiteers because she faces what appears to be an even worse threat:  from Conservative MPs opposed to No Deal.  This comes in the form of an amendment that was due to be voted on during the Valentine’s Day debate, but which at the last minute was postponed to February 27.  This amendment has become known as the Cooper/Letwin Amendment

The Cooper/Letwin Amendment.

In Brexit Update 3, we saw that one of the amendments voted on during the January 29 debate was the Cooper Amendment, tabled by the Labour “centrist” MP Yvette Cooper.  This called for time to debate and vote on a parliamentary bill 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 (though he asked for the extension to be only for three months, not nine).  But the January 29 Cooper Amendment was  defeated (298 for, 321 against; 14 Labour rebels representing Leave-supporting constituencies voted against it).

The new Cooper/Letwin Amendment calls for time to debate and vote on a parliamentary bill designed to prevent a no-deal Brexit.  This bill would give May till Wednesday March 13 to get a revised deal with the EU passed by Parliament.  If a new deal is not passed by Parliament by March 13, MPs must vote either for No Deal or for the government to seek an extension of Article 50 (ie a postponement of the leaving date).  This has much greater Conservative Party backing than the previous Cooper Amendment; indeed it is said that some Cabinet ministers are considering resigning so that they can vote for the new Cooper/Letwin Amendment.  Before this was postponed to February 27, there was widespread talk of a “Valentine’s Day massacre” of the government.  So May’s inclusion of the Spelman/Dromey amendment in her Valentine’s Day motion seems to be an attempt to placate the many Conservative MPs opposed to No Deal. In fact, I heard speculation on the BBC that the inclusion of Spelman/Dromey in the motion may have been a quid pro quo for the postponement of  Cooper/Letwin to February 27 (there are all kinds of plots and negotiations going on behind the Brexit scenes).

However, in an effort to persuade the No-Dealers to vote for the motion, the Brexit Secretary, Stephen Barclay, who proposed it (May was absent, evidently because she knew the motion was likely to be defeated) insisted during his speech that it was untrue that the motion implied that the government was “taking No Deal off the table.”  He said

“The only way to avoid no deal – as the Prime Minister has repeatedly said and as is backed up by legislation – is either to secure a deal on the terms that the Prime Minister has set out, with the mandate that the House gave her in response to the earlier motion, or to revoke Article 50.”

When challenged about the contradiction between this claim and the motion itself, which reiterated support for an amendment that rules out No Deal, Barclay said that “the legislation” which agreed a leaving date of March 29, “takes precedence over the motion”, which is non-binding.

But it seems that, to the No-Dealers, even worse than the implicit inclusion of the Spelman/Dromey Amendment in the motion was the refusal of the government to include any mention of “the Malthouse Compromise”.

The Malthouse Compromise

First: the name.  It is named after the Housing Minister, Kit Malthouse, who begged warring Leavers and Remainers in the Conservative Party to meet together for talks to try to thrash out a compromise.

The Malthouse Compromise consists of a Plan A and a Plan B.  Plan A involves replacing the backstop with a free trade agreement, backed up by unspecified technological solutions to avoid customs checks on the Irish border. Plan A would also involve extending the transition period for an extra year until December 2021.

If this doesn’t work, Plan B comes into operation. Plan B is essentially a managed no-deal.  The EU would again extend the transition period for a year.   The UK would pay its agreed financial contributions and honour its commitments on the right of EU citizens living in Britain.  After the  year’s extension to prepare for its departure, the UK would leave the EU on World Trade Organisation terms on December 31 2021 or else negotiate a different deal.

One EU official, however, is said to have described the Malthouse Compromise as “the bonkers No-Deal plan”; and EU leaders insist that technological solutions do not work and that the Withdrawal Deal cannot be renegotiated.  Kit Malthouse himself has been quoted as saying ruefully: “If I’m lucky, the Malthouse Compromise will go down as a small footnote in the history of Brexit.  If I’m not, I’ll end up as the name given to an obscure sexual position”.

Nonetheless, right-wing Conservative Brexiteers argued that the wording of the government’s motion, as well as taking out the implicit reference to the Spelman/Dromey Amendment, should include mention of the Malthouse Compromise.  The government’s refusal to do so seems to have been a major reason for abstentions by many right-wing Conservative Brexiteers.  But it wasn’t only the Brexiteers; more than a fifth of the Conservative Party (this number would have included Remainers and others opposed to No Deal) abstained on the motion.  Five Conservative MPs even voted against it.

What will happen next?

The defeat of the motion is non-binding and so does not affect Theresa May in any immediate way.  She has said that she will continue her attempt to renegotiate the backstop.  But this setback makes her task even more difficult than it already was, if that were possible.  She needs to convince EU leaders that any changes they are likely to agree to will be accepted by Parliament; just as she also needs to convince Parliament that she is making some progress with her negotiations with the EU.  Any such progress will be made even more difficult by this rejection of her motion.  And she has not only destroyed her temporary rapprochement with right wing Brexiteers; many Conservative MPs opposed to No Deal appear to be  losing patience with her delaying tactics, which are taking the UK ever closer to the cliff-edge of  a No Deal exit on March 29.  It looks as though February 27 – with the threatened Cooper/Letwin Amendment, together with the prospect of Cabinet resignations – could turn out to be a showdown.

For a transcript of the debate:

https://www.theyworkforyou.com/debates/?id=2019-02-14a.1068.8&p=11946