BREXIT UPDATE 12:  A Day of Mayhem

Today (March 13) was a day of high drama, farce and utter confusion, combining in extreme form all the typical aspects of Brexit.

Michael Gove, the Environment Secretary, opened the debate by proposing the government motion on No Deal instead of the Maybot, who has lost her voice as the result of her lengthy last-minute, late-night talks on the backstop in Strasbourg on Monday night (March 11) with Jean-Claude Juncker, the President of the European Commission.  The Maybot had sounded very hoarse when proposing the motion on her deal the previous day (Tuesday March 12) – though she joked at the time to MPs “you should hear Jean-Claude Juncker”.  On his part, Jean-Claude Juncker has caused fury in Europhobic right-wing Tory tabloids such as The Sun by quipping to the European Parliament in a speech on Tuesday (March 12) : “Allow me to tell you a secret:  I didn’t sleep much because of Mrs May last night”.[1]

The government motion today was: “That this House declines to approve leaving the European Union without a withdrawal agreement and a framework for the future relationship on 29 March 2019.  And notes that leaving without a deal remains the default in UK and EU law unless this House and the EU ratify an agreement.”

As we have seen, the government was forced, if it lost the vote on the Withdrawal Deal, to put forward a motion that rejected leaving the EU on March 29 without a deal.  But the wording of the motion still kept No Deal on the table, still threatening MPs with it unless they voted for May’s deal.  The text of the motion, Gove’s speech and May’s brief comments at the end of the debate have made it clear that – unbelievable though it might seem – she intends to present her deal to Parliament for a third time in the next few days.

The Speaker selected two amendments:

1) The Spelman/Cooper Amendment.  Tabled by the Conservative Remainer MP Dame Caroline Spelman and the “centrist” Labour MP Yvette Cooper, it sought again to put a stop to the prospect of an endless “swimming round in circles” process according to which MPs vote for a short extension, then, as the leaving date looms, the deal is rejected again, No Deal is rejected again, then another short extension is secured, until finally out of exhaustion MPs finally pass May’s deal.   This amendment changes the wording of the government motion to: “this House rejects the United Kingdom leaving the European Union without a Withdrawal Agreement and a Framework for the Future Relationship”.

2)  The “Malthouse Compromise”/Damien Green Amendment.

The Malthouse Compromise was described in Brexit Update 6.  Its name derives from an appeal by the Housing Minister, Kit Malthouse to Conservative Remainers and Leavers to get together to reach a compromise solution to Brexit.  But it is essentially a managed No Deal – described by one EU official as “the bonkers No Deal plan”.  The Amendment was tabled by the Conservative MP (and former Minister) Damien Green.  In line with the Malthouse Compromise, the Amendment called on the government a) to publish tariff schedules; b) to ask the EU for a short extension of the leaving date to May 22 2019; c) to secure “mutual standstill” agreements between the UK and the EU until the end of 2021, including payments to the EU – ie a long transition period, so that the UK could prepare to leave with No Deal on World Trade Organisation terms; d) a unilateral guarantee by the UK of citizens’ rights.

How Did MPs Vote on the Amendments and Motion?

To take the Malthouse Compromise Amendment first:  it was defeated by 210 votes: the Ayes 164; the Noes: 374. This defeat seems to mark the end of the Malthouse Compromise, at least for now.

Second:  the Spelman/Cooper Amendment.  Here we come to the day’s high political drama and confusion.  Though the Maybot had promised that today’s vote on No Deal would be a free vote – ie MP could vote according to their consciences, not in obedience to party “whips” or orders – the government decided to impose a whip on the Spelman/Cooper Amendment.  When the whip was imposed, the Conservative MP Dame Caroline Spelman said she wanted to withdraw the amendment.  However, Yvette Cooper and other co-signatories of the Amendment insisted that it should go ahead.  It was put to the vote and passed by four votes: the Ayes 312; the Noes 308. This amendment is, however, non-binding.

After the Spelman/Cooper Amendment   narrowly passed, the government imposed a  three-line whip on the motion as amended.  So the government instructed all Conservatives to vote against the government’s own motion. But when the motion as amended came to the vote, it passed:  the Ayes 321; the Noes 278. Many Conservative MPs must have rebelled against the three-line whip.  It later turned out that four members of the Cabinet had abstained on the motion.  This is a sackable offence; and it is a measure of the Maybot’s extreme weakness that the four were able to abstain without being immediately sacked from the Cabinet.

In a brief and extremely hoarse speech after the vote,  the Maybot claimed, despite the victory of the motion, that “the options are the same as they have always been” and that “we will leave the EU without a deal unless something else is agreed”.  She implied that she intends to present her deal to Parliament for a third time: “if the House finds a way in the coming days to support a deal, this allows for a short technical extension” – ie to sort out the necessary legislation.  And she added ominously that, if the House were to suggest a much longer extension, this would mean requiring the UK to take part in the European elections in May.  This last threat was aimed at Brexiteers and the DUP, pointing out that if they don’t support her deal, the result could be No Brexit.  So she seemed, as usual, in denial and oblivious, still playing her cards of threatening No Deal or No  Brexit in her doomed attempt to force the House of Commons to accept her deal.

In response, Jeremy Corbyn said that the House of Commons had once again definitively ruled out No Deal.  He added that an extension is inevitable; and the blame for it must be laid entirely at the door of Theresa May.  But it must be an extension for a purpose.  Labour will be holding cross-party talks to find a solution that is acceptable to Parliament.

Tomorrow the House of Commons will vote on whether or not to ask the EU for an extension of the leaving date.  The next Brexit Update will discuss the motion and amendments and consider what might happen next in this extraordinary drama.

[1]https://www.thesun.co.uk/news/brexit/8619544/jean-claude-juncker-makes-tasteless-joke-about-not-getting-enough-sleep-last-night-because-of-theresa-may/