Yesterday, the second five-day debate on the Prime Minister’s Brexit deal began ahead of the rescheduled vote on Tuesday 15th January. During the first debate ahead of the then pulled vote before Christmas I wrote arguing for a second referendum with a two tier question so a majority on how to move ahead in the divorce could be formed. But even as I wrote I had a growing gut feeling that what will actually happen will be a hard Brexit, not out of choice, but purely by accident. Now that Parliament is back and the debate has started up again it still looks like my gut is onto a winner.
The hope of Number 10 had been that over the Christmas break, MPs would reflect on the deal, be lobbied by constituents to vote for it, and upon return March 29th would look a lot closer than it did in December, scaring enough MPs that are against a No Deal Brexit, into voting for the PM’s deal. Instead MPs managed to have a break from Brexit and now they’re back, they’ve picked up where they left off with some 115 Tory MPs still not going to vote for it. The one thing there is a majority for in Parliament is avoiding No Deal. The problem is there’s no majority on how to do so.
Instead is Parliament doubling down on ensuring that it has more of a say on the final Brexit outcome than Theresa May and the Government have been willing to give. Politicians of all stripes are becoming more assertive by bringing forward amendments and procedural issues to force the Government into one course of action or another. The fact is Number 10 and the Prime Minister are having more and more control of the process leached from them. At this point they are even losing the power over when to hold the vote.
On Monday 200 MPs, including the Chairs of important Select Committees, signed a letter to the Government urging them to rule out a No Deal Brexit. Some MPs are arguing that they should make it harder for the government to spend on no deal planning, the idea being that if they don’t have the money, they can’t prepare for it and thus will have to do everything under the sun to prevent it happening. This is about as dangerous a game as you can play, the blowback could be devastating.
The stakes were raised further on Tuesday night when an amendment to the finance bill, brought by Yvette Cooper, was supported by MPs of all sides resulting in the first defeat for a government on a finance bill since the 1970s. The effects of this amendment is to make it harder for the Government to raise certain taxes – to do so they would have to come to Parliament for permission – that would be needed should a no deal Brexit occur. The Government sees this as little more than a nuisance and something they can deal with quite easily but it’s certainly not the best thing for them. Being a finance bill, one Tory MP has suggested it doesn’t actually have to be brought for Royal Assent until May, two months after Brexit, so isn’t an issue at all. But not to have the ability to raise money properly during the start of the fiscal year in April would be highly embarrassing and problematic, potentially leading to a need to increase borrowing at a time when boring costs would be high and the pound low.
Despite all this, the shock of the week came Wednesday morning at the hands of the, by now highly unrevered Speaker, John Bercow. Going against all precedents and the advice of the Clerk of the House. He gave MPs a vote, that the Government lost, on a proposed Amendment by former Attorney General Dominic Grieve, going against all convention. A move that his esteemed predecessor Baroness Boothroyd is said to have called ‘disgraceful’.
The Amendment reduces from 21 days to 3 days the time in which the Government must return to Parliament with their Plan B should, as is expected, they loose the vote on Tuesday. While this shortening of time increased the pressure on the Government, it shouldn’t such an issue, as you would expect them to have plans. It may have the added bonus of increasing the chances of more concessions coming quick and strong from the EU. But in throwing out agreed timelines for such issues in Parliament it allows the Government less time to renegotiate with Europe. It also signals that the Speaker will be dictating the pace at which things happen by his choice of amendments put forward, thus throwing off the balances of power. It has the potential to make the current messy process even more so.
But all any of this means is, that while Parliament is flexing its muscles and the Government is further weakened, nothing really changes. The vote on Tuesday is still unlikely to pass, and while this flexing speeds things up and makes it clear to the Government that a majority of MPs don’t want a No Deal Brexit, we knew that already. What all of it fails to do is what’s actually needed – tell anyone what there is a majority for as a No Deal alternative. And all of this is playing out against the backdrop of the legally binding fall back position of No Deal being triggered on March 29th and only 40 sitting days of Parliament left before then.
Today we are seeing a number of amendments around guarantees on workers rights, to limiting the Backstop to one year, being floated in an attempt by Number 10 to woo Labour and DUP MPs and build the cross party support they should have from the very beginning. This is no doubt in reaction to the Grieve Amendment and the Government not wanting to have to return in 3 days after a lost vote, but it’s unlikely to be enough. The Labour front bench is unmoved as it’s politically not worth them doing so, and for the DUP any amendment passed by Parliament on the Backstop would still be superseded by the withdrawal agreement.
Short of May’s deal passing on Tuesday or it passing at a later date with EU concessions, it’s hard to see anything else being agreed on as things stand. Ironically in their bid to have more say over Brexit and prevent a No Deal Brexit, MPs could in fact be increasing its likelihood. While MPs keep digging in and pushing their various positions, time is slipping away ever quicker, each group thinking the other groups will cave in and come to support them. It just won’t happen, so here we come accidental No Deal.