BREXIT UPDATE 13: THE MARCH 14 DEBATE:  THE MAYBOT’S GAMBLE

At the end of Brexit Update 12, I wrote that on March 13 the Maybot — in her brief, extremely hoarse comments after the government’s motion on No Deal had nominally won but had in fact lost because she had ordered the entire Conservative Party to vote against it –

“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.”

Yesterday (March 14), the government’s latest motion came close to reiterating these comments.  This is the motion:

“That this House

(1) notes the resolutions of the House of 12 and 13 March [ie the second defeat of May’s deal and the vote against leaving with No Deal] , and accordingly agrees that the Government will seek to agree with the European Union an extension of the period specified in Article 50 (3) [ie the March 29 leaving date].

(2) agrees that, if the House has passed a resolution approving the negotiated Withdrawal Agreement and the Framework for the Future Relationship for the purpose of Section 13 (1) (b) of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018 by 20 March 2019, then the Government will seek to agree with the European Union a one-off extension of the period specified in Article 50 (3) for a period ending on 30 June 2019 for the purpose of passing the necessary EU exit legislation and

(3) notes that, if the House has not passed a resolution approving the negotiated  Withdrawal Agreement and the Framework for the Future Relationship for the purposes of Section 13 (1) (b) of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018 by 20 March 2019, then it is highly likely that the European Council at its meeting the following day would require a clear purpose for any extension, not least to determine its length, and that any extension beyond 30 June 2019 would require the United Kingdom to hold European Parliament elections in May 2019.”

To sum this up:  according to the motion, a short extension of only three months can only be definitely achieved if, when the deal is presented to the House of Commons for a third time, it is passed.  If Parliament once again rejects the deal, the EU is “highly likely” to ask the UK to declare a “clear purpose for any extension”:  this purpose could mean extending the leaving date beyond June 30, perhaps a long way beyond; this would mean that the UK would have to hold elections in May to send Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) to Brussels (the first sitting of the European Parliament is early July) .

As March 29 looms in two weeks’ time, the Maybot is still holding the threat of No Deal over the heads of the majority of MPs who are opposed to leaving without a deal.  As she also pointed out in her remarks after the vote, the parliamentary decision against No Deal is non-binding [though in fact it is not a vote the government can ignore]; the default legal situation is still that the UK will leave without a deal on March 29 “unless something else is agreed”.  But she is also now holding the threat of No Brexit over the heads of Leave-supporting MPs, including the right-wing Tory Brexiteers, the DUP (who support Leave) and Labour MPs who represent Leave-supporting constituencies.

The Speaker selected four amendments and one amendment to an amendment.

(1)  The Second Referendum/Wollaston Amendment.

This amendment, tabled by Sarah Wollaston, a member of the new breakaway group The Independent Group (TIG), instructed the Prime Minister to request enough extension time to hold a second Brexit referendum.   This was the first time the House of Commons had the opportunity to vote on the issue of a second referendum.  But Sarah Wollaston had actually been asked by the People’s Vote Campaign not to bring this amendment – the timing was felt to be premature; the House was not yet ready for it.  The PVC turned out to be right.  The amendment was massively defeated: the Ayes: 85; the Noes 334.  The government had whipped all Conservative MPs to vote against it.  And – in an action that has caused much bitterness among Remainer MPs – Labour whipped all its MPs to abstain (Corbyn gave the same reason for this decision as that put forward by the PVC).  In the end, 43 Labour MPs rebelled: 25 voted for the amendment, while 18 voted against it (these last were, of course, Labour MPs who represent Leave-voting constituencies).  Also a few Conservative MPs rebelled by voting for the motion or abstaining.

(2) The “Indicative Votes”/ Benn Amendment

This was tabled by the “centrist” Labour MP Hilary Benn (the son of Tony Benn; Hilary Benn’s political position is very different from that of his father, who was a close friend and mentor of Jeremy Corbyn).  This very significant amendment sought to take control of the Brexit process away from the government and into the hands of Parliament.  At present, the government decides the House of Commons “business” timetable: ie what MPs get to debate on and the length of time given to the issues under debate.  The Benn amendment called for Parliament to take control of business on March 20, by means of a series of “indicative votes” from which a parliamentary consensus – an indication of the solution that commanded most parliamentary support — could emerge.   The amendment also called for an extension to the March 29 leaving date, in order to “enable the House of Commons to find a way forward that can command majority support”.

The Benn amendment had strong cross-party support: co-signatories were the “centrist” Labour MP Yvette Cooper and the Conservative MPs Oliver Letwin and Dominic Grieve, together with SNP, Liberal Democrat and Plaid Cymru MPs.

The government whipped all Conservative MPs to vote against the amendment; whereas Labour whipped all its MPs to vote in favour.

In the end, the Benn amendment was defeated by precisely two votes:  the Ayes: 312; the Noes: 314.  16 Tory MPs defied the whip to vote in favour of it; six Labour MPs rebelled by voting against. Despite the defeat, the extreme closeness of the vote indicates the strength of Parliament in its struggle to wrest power from the government.

(3) The Amendment to the Benn Amendment

This was tabled by the Labour MP Lucy Powell.  It added that any extension to the Brexit process should end by June 30.  This amendment to an amendment was defeated by only three votes: the Ayes: 311; the Noes: 314.

(4) The Corbyn/Labour Front Bench Amendment

It had been agreed beforehand that, if the Benn Amendment passed, this amendment would be withdrawn.  Like the Benn amendment, this amendment sought to “provide parliamentary time for this House to find a majority for a different approach”.  This lost by only 16 votes:  the Ayes: 302: the Noes:  318.

(5)  The Bryant Amendment

Tabled by the Labour MP Chris  Bryant, this amendment sought to prevent the Maybot from bringing her deal back to Parliament for a third time. It notes that the parliamentary rulebook, known as Erskine May after its author, “states that a motion or an amendment which is the same, in substance, as a question which has been decided in the affirmative or negative during a current session may not be brought forward again during that session”.

In the end, the Bryant Amendment was not moved, because it was made clear that this issue is a matter for the judgment of the Speaker.

After all the amendments had been defeated (though some by extremely close margins), the un-amended motion was put to the vote.  The result was an overwhelming but ambiguous win for the government: the Ayes: 412; the Noes: 202.  188 Conservative MPs voted against the motion, including eight Cabinet Ministers (who included the Brexit Secretary, Stephen Barclay, who had earlier spoken, on behalf of the government, in favour of the motion at the end of the debate).  The DUP also voted against.  Most Labour MPs voted in favour, as did the SNP, Liberal Democrats, TIG, Plaid Cymru and the Greens.  So the government motion passed mainly because of opposition votes.

The Maybot did not speak after the vote; but in a point of order, Jeremy Corbyn said that Labour has begun to hold cross-party meetings.  He called on Theresa May to accept that her deal and No Deal are no longer viable options.  He argued that a deal can be agreed based on his alternative plan that can win support across the House.  In order to counter accusations of betrayal from Remainers on account of the Labour Party’s abstention on the referendum vote, he repeated his support for a public vote to break the deadlock.

What Could Happen Next

The deal is due to be voted on early next week, before Wednesday March 20 (which is the day before the European Council of Ministers meets to discuss Brexit).  However, it is not yet certain that the deal will actually be voted on for a third time –the Speaker has still to decide (see comments above on the Bryant Amendment).  The Maybot is extremely unlikely to secure any more changes – cosmetic or not – from the EU; in the press conference on the night of March 11, Jean-Claude Juncker made it clear that there would be no third chance; not surprisingly, he doesn’t want to spend another night discussing the backstop with the Maybot.  However, the latest news is that the Maybot is involved in discussions with the DUP[1] – and some commentators believe she can win them round.  Again, this seems to me to be unlikely.

David Lidington, the Cabinet Office Minister who deputises for Theresa May, said in his speech yesterday proposing the motion that, if the deal is rejected for a third time, “the government….would facilitate a process, in the two weeks after the March European Council,  to allow the House to seek a majority on the way forward” – ie in the two weeks after March 21, the House will be allowed “indicative votes” to reach a consensus on the way ahead.

In a highly significant tweet, Donald Tusk, the President of the European Council, wrote yesterday (March 14): “During my consultations ahead of #EUCO [ie the European Council meeting that will be held on March 21 to discuss Brexit], I will appeal to the EU 27 to be open to a long extension if the UK finds it necessary to rethink its #Brexit strategy and build consensus around it”.[2]

So a long extension looks very likely, though such an extension has to be agreed by all 27 EU member states.  There are suggestions that the problem of the UK  having to participate in the EU elections could be resolved – the UK could stay temporarily as a member state but not have to hold elections for Members of the European Parliament (MEPs).[3]

The Maybot is gambling that the threat of the long extension will concentrate the minds of the DUP, right wing Tory Brexiteers, Labour MPs representing Leave-supporting constituencies and other Leavers, so that Parliament will pass her deal if/when it is presented to the House of Commons for a third time early next week.  But she is likely to lose the gamble and fail in her mission to deliver Brexit on time. Such a failure would probably lead to her resignation, a Conservative leadership contest and probably a General Election.

[1] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-47579033

[2] https://twitter.com/eucopresident/status/1106115929539334144

[3] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-47568283