House of Commons

Played-out Brexit takes shape

Published: 23 May 2019
Author: Richard Parry

CCC Fellow Richard Parry reviews Theresa May's abortive plan to get her Brexit "deal" through the Commons as her premiership terminates abruptly.

‘Played-out’ was a phrase used in the 2017 Conservative election manifesto to indicate what would have to happen to Brexit before there could be any further referendum on Scottish independence. It carries suggestions of exhaustion, extension and conclusion, and all three themes are now in evidence. Exhaustion was the first theme after the European Council on 10 April. The Commons rose the next day for Easter without any statement to it by Theresa May. The EU side adopted a posture of weary detachment. Then extension took over as the days went by, with May’s negotiating partners being her backbenchers on the 1922 committee and the leadership of the Labour Party. On 16 May the first set of talks concluded for the moment with May’s agreement to discuss a timetable for a leadership election after the next Commons vote. On 17 May Jeremy Corbyn pulled the plug on his talks. The European elections are going ahead on Thursday 23 May, with results to be declared on Sunday 26th. The way forward to some kind of conclusion is now clearer, but without any promise that the present policy path will play out any differently from the previous ones.     

On 10 April, the European Council’s minuted conclusions (para 2) stated that the further extension to Brexit ‘should only last as long as necessary and, in any event, no longer than 31 October 2019. If the Withdrawal Agreement is ratified by both parties before this date, the withdrawal will take place on the first day of the following month’. Now that the UK has avoided automatic expulsion on 1 June by organizing the election, this leaves in theory 1 July (with EU ratification by the old European Parliament) and then (after ratification by the new one with newly-elected UK MEPs taking their seats), 1 August, 1 September, 1 October or 31 October. The European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018 section 13 requires parliamentary consent to UK ratification through a motion in specified terms (the ones rejected on 15 January (by 230 votes) and 12 March (by 149); the motion rejected by 58 on 29 March was not in the specified terms as it did not include approval of the Political Declaration), and the passage of primary legislation (the Withdrawal Agreement Bill (‘WAB’).

The now-concluded talks with Labour were initiated by May’s Downing Street statement of 2 April that said ‘if we cannot agree on a single unified approach, then we would instead agree a number of options for the Future Relationship that we could put to the House in a series of votes to determine which course to pursue. Crucially, the Government stands ready to abide by the will of the House.’ No options were agreed as envisaged. May has not ruled out some votes, but the concept appears to use the WAB to roll up the motion into the bill itself, to be presented for second reading in the week when parliament reconvenes on Tuesday 4 June after a holiday recess that encompasses the whole period after the European elections. A two-day debate ending in a vote on Wednesday 5 June has been suggested.  The timing is curious. It is a crowded week, including the Trump state visit on 3-5 June (schedule not yet announced, but it is to include a visit to Portsmouth) and on 6 June D-Day anniversary celebrations (at 1800 CET May and Trump will be on Juno Beach) and the Peterborough by-election. These would give ample reason for postponing the debate to the following week.  Is the timing a diversion from Trump, or the by-election, or maybe an attempt to offer Conservative and Labour MPs a headline to stave off a drubbing at Peterborough?  

The vote, previewed in May’s disastrous speech in Charing Cross on Tuesday 23 May was set up as her long-shot final throw; if she loses it the Bill cannot be brought back by her. The novelty promised in the Bill would have to consist of various matters susceptible to UK legislation like the ones on Ireland, workers’ rights and parliamentary consultation offered or trailed already. May would need to retain all her Conservative support from 29 March and secure Labour abstention or (most likely) tacit Labour votes and abstentions supplied by Corbyn. Following the hostile Tory backbench reaction to her speech, May wrote to Corbyn pleading for support on the basis that Labour’s wish list has been substantially met. And that is just the start, as the Bill would have to complete all its stages and be subject to amendment. May is not gone just yet: she seems likely to survive until Friday 24 May when she is due to meet with 1922 chairman Sir Graham Brady.  She can, of course,  remain as Prime Minister until a new leader is elected.

It would be surprising if the winning candidate in a Conservative leadership contest will not have promised to go back to Brussels and secure improved withdrawal terms, and if not secured to implement a no-deal Brexit.  This is exactly what May tried and failed to do – and in a longer perspective we may learn whether this was because of her personal political failings, or because of structural variables in the policy process on the issue which only become apparent from inside government.

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