Shorn of the legal language required by the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018, the motion agreed by MPs on Tuesday 29 January 2019 states that ‘This House….rejects the United Kingdom leaving the European Union without an Withdrawal Agreement and a Framework for the Future Relationship, and requires the Northern Ireland backstop to be replaced with alternative arrangements to avoid a hard border; supports leaving the European Union with a deal and would therefore support the Withdrawal Agreement subject to this change’. When placed in this way as a preamble to the main thrust of the motion, the Spelman/Dromey amendment loses much of its force, and in any case passed by only eight votes. 310 MPs went on record as not seeking to rule out a no-deal Brexit.
The outcome of the various votes left certain only that the Government would either secure an amended deal and put it to a meaningful vote on Wednesday 13 February, or in the overwhelmingly likely absence of this make a further statement that day and table another amendable motion for the following day, the Groundhog Day that may lead to a ‘St Valentine’s Day Massacre’ for one side or the other.
One clear setback is for the cross-party grandees promoting extensions or referendums. Buoyed by the Labour conference resolution and the polling evidence of a solid, no-reservations Remain position by Labour members, they had dared to dream. Tuesday was a wake-up. It was painful to watch Yvette Cooper’s exchange with Jeremy Corbyn (Hansard col 689) when she explained that she didn’t really mean the extension date of 31 December 2019 (conveniently long enough for a second referendum) specified in the Bill she wanted to introduce, and that it would be contracted during the Bill’s passage. Her reward was Labour whipping for her amendment, but it did not bring on board about 25 Labour MPs who are now a useful hunting-ground for Washington-style blandishments by the Conservatives.
Beyond that, the votes are hard to interpret. Was it a victory or a defeat for Theresa May? Is a no-deal Brexit more or less likely? Is the greatest pressure now on Brussels, Dublin or London? It seemed absurd when May claimed that her big loss of the meaningful vote of 15 January was actually a positive verdict on the deal subject to a few worries about the backstop. She has now secured a majority (317-310) for more or less that proposition, with seven Labour votes in favour knocking out the eight Conservatives on the losing side (alongside, unprecedentedly, ‘Siddiq, Tulip (proxy vote cast by Vicky Foxcroft)’). But she has probably over-achieved. Her bold support of the Graham Brady amendment, joining the backstop worriers, was always going to detach a body of keen but non-fanatical Brexiteers at the centre of gravity of her party, like Brady himself. To get the European Research Group on board, reversing their initial thoughts, was a bonus. But, like Cooper & Co, the polling evidence within their party supports the ERG’s dream – in this case, a suck-it-and-see hard Brexit in which the bottom-line modalities of the EU about the customs frontier would be exposed. Their presence in the government lobby might be very temporary, as might that of the Democratic Unionist Party who were necessary for May’s majority.
The irony is that Brady amendment’s ‘alternative arrangements’ is already a concept in the deal. The preamble to the Protocol on Northern Ireland (p302) recalls ‘the Union’s and the United Kingdom’s intention to replace the backstop solution on Northern Ireland by a subsequent agreement that establishes alternative arrangements for ensuring the absence of a hard border on the island of Ireland on a permanent footing’. The Political Declaration fleshes this out slightly by speaking of ‘making use of all available facilitative arrangements and technologies‘ (paras 26-27). Conceptually, it should be possible to accelerate the path to the establishment of arrangements in which everyone is supposed to believe. But sadly days or weeks in 2019 show no prospect of succeeding where months and years in 2017-18 failed.