Theresa May is trying to buy time in two week instalments, but her grip on the Brexit process is faltering. If the last motion had been worded ‘this House welcomes the Prime Minister’s statement of 12 February 2019 and the ongoing discussions between the UK and the EU on the Northern Ireland backstop’ it might have passed. It was meant to be a vehicle for amendments but as Andrea Leadsom explained prior to the debate on 14 February (Hansard col 1044), it could not be a totally neutral ‘take note’ motion as these cannot normally be amended. The 29 January neutral motion used a specific exemption in the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018 for the circumstance when a Withdrawal Agreement had been rejected. Conspiracy or cock-up, there was a fatal government decision to insert the phrase ‘reiterates its support for the approach to leaving the EU expressed by this House on 29 January 2019’. This approach included the Spelman/Dromey amendment ‘rejecting’ a no-deal departure, as well as the Brady amendment supporting a withdrawal agreement subject to the replacement of the Northern Ireland backstop by alternative arrangements to avoid a hard border.
The European Research Group of hard-core brexiteers, perhaps assuming that the 14 February debate was meant to be an inconsequential re-run of 29 January, had reason to be suspicious that the government was trying to embrace the Spelman/ Dromey amendment it had originally opposed. About 70 Conservatives did not support the 14 February motion, but all but five of these abstained. Put optimistically for Theresa May, about fifty of her MPs were back on board compared with the big vote on the deal, and nearly all of the rest could be seen as persuadable.
And yet the damage to the government was fundamental. May’s lifeline of 29 January, that she had secured a majority behind her demands of the EU27, was torpedoed. The debate had a worrying atmosphere, with a painful attempt by Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay to articulate his position and a not much better one by Keir Starmer with Labour’s. At the close of the debate May was absent and it was left to a D team of Jenny Chapman and Chris Heaton-Harris to wind up from the front benches. Both boredom and foreboding were in the air. Now May has to do it all again on 27 February, crafting a motion that will not be voted down and resisting unwelcome amendments.
Everyone knows that May’s pathway to her desired outcome is perilous, as she has promised legally binding changes to the backstop without any obvious prospect of amending the text of the Withdrawal Agreement. All that might be left is EU acquiescence, in an amended Political Declaration, to a UK legal instrument providing for an ultimate unilateral exit route from the backstop if all negotiations fail. The Attorney-General Geoffrey Cox is providing the booming presence on May’s tail to secure this, lawyer-to-lawyer, and certify the outcome like his predecessor in 2003 who found ‘a better view’ that the war in Iraq was legal after all. May’s visit to an EU-Arab summit she hopes soon to be ineligible to attend seemed a final throw to get one-to-one time with Angela Merkel. The Independent Group breakaways of 18-20 February provided eleven uninhibited votes for quasi-remain options and is a bridgehead for further fragmentation on the wings of both main parties. The ‘Alternative Arrangements Working Group’ consisting entirely of Conservative MPs is the ultimate introspection in Brexit decision-making.
May’s high-wire act needs to keep all her MPs fearing something – a no-deal Brexit or an extended notice period that would surely set up the softest of departures, or none at all. She may now have to acquiesce in the Yvette Cooper amendment to obtain a legislative path (in its latest version, the European Union (Withdrawal) (No 4) Bill) to extension and to ruling out no deal that is not controlled by the government; it failed by 23 votes on 29 January but has now won wider support by not specifying a length of extension. May’s strategy had seemed to involve a second meaningful vote that would be lost, but show evidence of momentum her way and recruitment of more Labour MPs. This would then set up an extension of departure until the end of June to allow a final, final vote. The previously unimaginable thought that the second vote (if it happens at all) might be only days before 29 March was in play even before the ‘Robbins at the Brussels bar’ moment . On 24 February in Egypt, May conceded ground by promising a vote by 12 March, knowing that Cooper’s bill requires the government to propose either no-deal or an extension by 14 March if the deal has not gone through.
The bottom line is that in both the Commons and the opinion polls support for the deal is surprisingly weak given its middle way aspect and its promotion by the government. The substance of any possible change to the backstop seems thin. As time goes by, political and business interests who have invested effort in no-deal preparations for 29 March will be looking for a payoff against those who have not. That is the eerie comparison with the mobilisation of European armies in 1914. The EU27’s position may well be, in the words of the song of that year by Paul Rubens, ‘we don’t want to lose you but we think you ought to go’. When the UK is a non-member, inhibitions on EU self-interest will go as well.