Withdrawal Agreement loses steam but the House of Commons offers no alternative

EPA-EFE//MARK DUFFY

British Prime Minister Theresa May speaking in the British House of Commons at Westminster, London, 27 March 2019.

Withdrawal Agreement loses steam but the House of Commons offers no alternative


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The House of Commons was unable to form a majority for any of the eight alternatives to the Withdrawal Agreement as they were unable to form a consensus on a customs union, a second referendum, European Free Trade Association membership, a revocation of Article 50. or no deal.

In theory, this should strengthen the prospects of the deal negotiated by Prime Minister Theresa May, but that appears to be the case. Prior to the vote on 27 March, a number of pro-Brexit hardliners carried out a stunning about-turn and coalesced behind the Withdrawal Agreement negotiated by May.

May is determined to attempt to pass the Withdrawal Agreement in a third vote by Friday, which was originally scheduled to be Brexit day. A number of hardline pro-Brexit MPs fear that the process for the UK to leave the EU may be altogether derailed and are reluctantly now backing the Withdrawal Agreement.

Among the hardliners who are reconsidering are Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg. The latter made his support conditional to the support of the Protestant-led Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) of Northern Ireland, whom he considers custodians to the unity of the UK.

The DUP initially appeared open to negotiations, but by late Wednesday evening and just two hours before the indicative votes, the leader of the DUP, Arlene Foster, made clear that the party would vote against the Withdrawal Agreement.

 “If we vote it down again, for the third time, there is now, I think, an appreciable risk that we will not leave at all,” Johnson wrote in his Daily Telegraph column.

May has tried to bolster her support by promising to resign should the Withdrawal Agreement pass, which would allow a new prime minister to take the lead during the second phase of the Brexit negotiations.

It is clear thatMay cannot demand party discipline as she has very little in the way of a “whip” as more than 20 ministers were willing to resign rather than follow a party line in these indicative votes.

The vote on 27 March was “indicative” and does not legally bind the government to accept any solution. The question now is whether a smaller number of the eight initial options will be resubmitted by 1 April.

May has drawn a red line to a certain degree and said that she would be unwilling to accept any agreement that is not in line with the Conservative Party manifesto of June 2017. This position rules out a customs union or Single Market membership and she is also unwilling to contemplate a second referendum, despite the fact that the latter and the prospect of a customs union came closer to gaining a positive vote.

But it is unclear how red can be any negotiating line drawn by the British prime minister.  Wednesday’s exercise in parliamentary sovereignty showed that May can potentially count on 20-27 Leave-supporting Labour MPs. But this would be short of the kind of support she needs to overcome the 105 MPs, largely DUP and Conservative backbenchers who support a “no-deal” Brexit.

There are currently few certainties as to what happens next. If the Withdrawal Agreement passes, the UK will have until 22 May to plan its withdrawal with the certainty of a transition period. If the parliament does not pass the Withdrawal Agreement, it will have to come up with an alternative plan by 12 April that will most likely not include a transition period.

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