BREXIT UPDATE 21: THE APRIL FOOL’S DAY DEBATE

Yesterday (Monday April 1) was a dramatic day – including a climate change protest in the House of Commons public gallery during the debate that made an April Fool out of Brexit, pointing out that, in the scale of things, it comes very low compared with the danger of the extinction of the planet.  At the end of the debate, a Conservative MP publicly resigned from his party and crossed the floor.  Just before the debate started, another Conservative MP publicly apologised for having voted for the Maybot’s deal.

And today, after a seven-hour crisis meeting of the Cabinet, the Maybot has made a statement about the Cabinet’s decision on the way forward – this will be discussed in the next Brexit Update.

To describe the debate itself: A House of Commons majority on a way forward is proving almost as elusive as a House of Commons majority on the Maybot’s deal.  All the motions debated and voted on yesterday were defeated (though all by smaller margins than before).  However, as was pointed out several times during yesterday’s debate, the main reason that the UK is in its present mess is that the current House of Commons process should have been initiated two years ago by the Prime Minister, in order to find out what would be acceptable to Parliament before she began negotiations with the EU.

Eight motions were tabled for yesterday’s debate, in which, for the second time, the House of Commons took control of the Brexit process in the attempt to find a consensus.   The Speaker selected four.  He had been expected to choose those that had come closest to achieving a majority last time, together with those that appeared to have gained considerable support in the interim period between the two debates – in short, he selected those he thought most likely to win.  He did not select Corbyn’s alternative plan, even though it came third on March 27 in terms of scale of defeat – the Speaker’s reason for not choosing this plan was probably that he thought it too party political.

THE FOUR MOTIONS

1) Sir Kenneth’s Clarke’s motion on a customs union as a minimum building block.  It commits the government to negotiating “a permanent and comprehensive UK-wide customs union with the EU” as part of any Brexit deal.  As was described in Brexit Update 19, the first version of this motion proved to be the most popular motion of the first debate.  It was defeated by only eight votes:  the Ayes: 264; the Noes 272.  This time, it lost by only three votes: the Ayes: 273; the Noes: 276.  The DUP voted against and the SNP abstained; if either of these parties had ordered their MPs to vote in favour, the motion would have won.

The reason that the DUP voted against was the lack of any mention of continued UK-wide membership of the Single Market.  As was described in Brexit Update 1, on the Northern Ireland backstop, the EU has demanded not only that Northern Ireland, in order to keep the Irish border open, remains in the Customs Union but that it also stays in the  Single Market.  If Northern Ireland alone remains in the Single Market, this means that some kind of border will have to be created between Northern Ireland and the rest of Britain – “a border in the Irish Sea”, as the DUP put it; this is anathema to the DUP, who view it as the first step towards a united Ireland.   The reason that the SNP abstained was also the omission of any reference to the Single Market.  Membership of the Single Market involves commitment to freedom of movement of EU citizens and workers to the UK – a highly contentious issue for the Conservative and Labour parties; but freedom of movement is a flagship policy for the SNP.

2) Common Market 2.0 or “Norway Plus”.  This was a version of the motion put forward by the (then) Conservative MP Nick Boles in last Wednesday’s debate (described in Brexit Update 19).  As I  wrote in Brexit Update 19, this plan builds on the current relationship between Norway and the EU:

“According to Norway Plus, the UK would reapply to join the European Free Trade Association (EFTA), which it left when it joined the European Economic Community (EEC) IN 1973; the UK would join the ‘European Economic Area (EAA) pillar’ of EFTA, so the UK would not leave the EAA and would remain in the Single Market.  This would mean freedom of movement (though with conditions attached). “

The big change in the voting for Common Market 2.0 was that this time round, in the spirit of compromise, Labour had decided to whip its MPs to vote for it (in the previous debate, Labour had only recommended that its MPs should vote for it).  This was despite Labour’s strong reservations about the freedom of movement aspect of the plan.  Labour’s 2017 election manifesto rejects freedom of movement:  “Freedom of movement will end when we leave the European Union.  Britain’s immigration system will change, but Labour will not scapegoat migrants nor blame them for economic failures.  Labour will develop and implement fair immigration rules” (p. 28).[1]  Paradoxical though this might seem, freedom of movement is associated with the “centrist”, “Blairite” wing of the Labour Party, not with the left-wing leadership.  Nonetheless, Corbyn wrote a  letter to all Labour MPs before the vote, asking them, in view of the urgent need to find a majority for a way forward, to vote for motions, including the  customs union and Common Market 2.0, that “reflect aspects” of Labour’s policy, even if Labour could not agree with them on all points.[2]

On March 27, Common Market 2:0 lost by 95 votes: the Ayes: 188; the Noes: 283.  This time, it was defeated by a much smaller margin of 21: the Ayes: 261; the Noes 282.  But — in one of the debate’s several dramatic moments — after the result was announced, Nick Boles publicly resigned from the Conservative Party, stating as his reason that his motion had failed chiefly because of the Conservative Party’s refusal to compromise.[3]

Before the debate started, another Conservative MP, the hard-line Brexiteer Richard Drax, had, with almost equal drama, made a public personal apology for having voted for the Maybot’s deal.  He had ended his statement – which was courageous and sincere, much though many people will disagree with his reasons for making it –by calling on the Maybot either to bring the UK out of the EU without a deal on April 12 or to resign.[4]

3) Confirmatory Vote.  On March 27, this motion was proposed by the veteran Labour MP Dame Margaret Beckett; yesterday’s motion was tabled by the Labour MPs Peter Kyle and Phil Wilson.  In the previous “indicative votes” debate, the confirmatory vote motion came second in terms of the numbers by which it was defeated, and first it terms of votes cast in favour: the Ayes:  268; the Noes 295, losing by 27 votes.  Yesterday, it lost by only 12 votes: the Ayes: 280; the Noes:  292.  (As before, Labour whipped its MPs to vote for this motion).  I wrote about the confirmatory vote motion in Brexit Update 19:

“According to this proposal, Parliament cannot ratify or implement any Withdrawal Agreement or Political Declaration on the Future Relationship ‘unless and until they have been approved by the people of the UK in a confirmatory public vote’.  This motion did not specify whether or not a Remain option would be on the ballot, so it is not the same as the second referendum called for by the People’s Vote Campaign – though the relative success of this motion might owe something to the massive People’s Vote march on Saturday, so it could be that this demonstration is having more effect than I thought would be the case.”

Another dramatic moment of the debate occurred during the speech proposing this motion that was given by Peter Kyle.  A group of people in the public gallery suddenly stripped off their clothes to their thong underwear and superglued their backs to the glass wall that separates the public gallery from the Chamber.  They turned out to be climate change protestors from a group called Extinction Rebellion.  Their message was that the danger of extinction of all life on the planet is more important than the danger of the UK leaving the EU without a deal.  One protestor later told ITV News:  “There’s no Brexit on a dead planet.  Brexit doesn’t actually matter”.  This certainly put the whole Brexit situation into perspective.  Twelve of them, however, were arrested on suspicion of “outraging public decency”.[5]

4)  Revoking Article 50.  This was an extensively rewritten version of the motion put forward by the SNP MP Joanna Cherry on March 27.  I wrote of the first motion in Brexit Update 19:

“This motion proposed that, if the UK gets within two days of leaving without a deal, MPs will vote on whether or not to accept No Deal.  If they reject it –as of course they will — the government will revoke Article 50.  Labour recommended its members to abstain on this motion. It was defeated, but not by as much as might have been expected; it lost by 109 votes, coming in at fifth place: the Ayes: 184; the Noes: 293.”

The new motion was more complicated.  It required the government to seek an extension if a deal has not been agreed two days before the leaving date.  If the EU does not agree to an extension, on the leaving date itself MPs would vote for either a no-deal Brexit or to revoke Article 50.  If (as would certainly happen in such a scenario) Article 50 is revoked, an inquiry would be held to find out what kind of future relationship with the EU could command majority support in the UK and be acceptable to the EU.

Labour again whipped its MPs to abstain on this motion, causing bitterness among the Remainer MPs who voted for it.   The motion was defeated by 101 votes this time: the Ayes: 191; the Noes 292; so the result was very similar to that on March 27; the motion only gained eight votes.  The Speaker evidently chose this motion a) because it was very different from the previous plan; b) because it sought to address the urgency of the situation, with the UK on the brink of leaving without a deal on April 12 unless a) the Maybot’s deal is agreed before then, which seems highly unlikely; b) a long extension is granted which means that the UK will have to take part in the European Parliament elections.

Which brings us to the crisis decision of the Cabinet today, which will be discussed in the next Brexit Update.

[1] https://labour.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2017/10/labour-manifesto-2017.pdf

[2] https://labourlist.org/2019/04/corbyns-letter-to-mps-we-have-a-variety-of-strongly-held-views-on-brexit/

[3] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D3c6nSJIsE0

[4] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O42bTwR1P3g

[5] https://www.itv.com/news/2019-04-01/12-arrests-after-climate-change-activists-strip-in-commons-as-mps-debate-brexit/