By researcher Joseph Perry
Touted as a tumultuous few weeks in parliament, Theresa May has once again pulled herself through another tough series of votes in the House of Commons. Fudging key pieces of legislation – such as the so-called ‘backstop’ on the Irish border - and avoiding other areas (including the EU’s concerns about champagne and Cornish pasties!), the government can tick-off another week on their Brexit calendar as we count down to the UK’s exit in March 2019. As usual, events have been complex and seemingly never-ending. This article hopes to shed some light on what has happened over the past two weeks.
The Key Events
Labour proposed a significant amendment to the EU withdrawal bill calling for ‘full access’ to the EU’s single market without being inside the single market. In layman’s terms, the amendment suggested the UK should ask for the benefits of free trade with Europe without having the obligations of being a member of the single market. A popular idea, theoretically, but a difficult one to implement.
The government published their Brexit ‘backstop’ plan, in short, how they plan to prevent a hard border occurring between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland (which would be likely to inflame serious historic conflicts with physical border checks) in the event of a ‘no deal’ Brexit.
Having backstop is a no-brainer, but officials disagree on whether the government should commit to a definite end to the arrangement. In the eyes of some Brexiteers, no time limit could mean a ‘Hotel California’ situation: a tariff-free 'single market’ is implemented on the basis that it is temporary, but the arrangement is never amended. The UK ‘checks-in’ to the single market but never leaves – just like Hotel California. This would leave Ireland in an eternal Brexit paradox, also known as a Brexiteer’s worst nightmare.
Debates about whether this ‘backstop’ should have a time limit were concluded with a compromise… the government’s paper said: ‘the UK expects the future arrangement to be in place by the end of December 2021 at the latest’. An ‘expected’ time-limit – some tasty fudging by the government indeed.
European Chief Negotiator Michel Barnier threw his hat into the ring by announcing a ‘time-limited’ back-stop would be ‘unacceptable to the EU’. Barnier declared: a ‘backstop means backstop… The temporary backstop is not in line with what we want or what Ireland and Northern Ireland want and need’. It is lucky Theresa May is not proposing a ‘time-limit’ then – or is she? These questions remain to be answered.
Brexit 'Super Tuesday' took place. Christmas for politics geeks nationwide but probably the most confusing day of the year for everyone else.
The House of Commons began voting on a series of amendments (made by the House of Lords) to the EU withdrawal bill: essentially the UK’s biggest cutting and pasting exercise - translating all of the EU’s laws into British law for when the UK leaves the union in March 2019. Here, two amendments caused considerable chaos…
The first proposed parliament should get a ‘meaningful vote’on the final deal agreed between the EU and the Conservative government. For Labour and several Tory ‘rebels’ (such as Anna Soubry and Dominic Grieve), parliament should have the power to vote on whether the UK accepts the EU’s final Brexit offers. In contrast, Brexiteers and Conservative ministers argue such a vote would undermine the government’s negotiating authority.
The second amendment looked at whether the UK should stay inside the European single market (also known as the EEA) or leave it. The Labour Party asked their MPs to abstain on this vote and instead support their amendment calling for ‘access’ without ‘membership’ (noted above).
The ‘meaningful vote’ amendment was eventually defeated by 324 votes to 298. The so-called ‘Tory rebels’ sided with the government after Theresa May promised MPs would have ‘input’ into what the government would do if the UK faces a no-deal scenario. This compromise ensured the support of these Tory ‘rebels’ and thus the success of the bill. Questions still remain, however, over what this ‘input’ may be. More clever fudging by May and her colleagues.
The amendment to stay in EEA (single market) also is overturned by 327 votes to 26. Although most of Labour’s MPs abstained, 90 defied the whip – 75 voted in favour and 15 voted to reject the amendment.
To add to the political turmoil, six Labour front benchers resigned in defiance of Corbyn’s plea to ignore the vote and instead support their amendment of 6th June (see above).
The government tried to respond the ‘meaningful vote’ fiasco by fleshing out how MPs will have ‘input’ into the UK-EU final deal. The government agreed to a final vote if there is no deal with the EU, but affirmed that this motion will ‘not be amendable’. Another fudging compromise – and one that has angered Tory rebel Dominic Grieve.
If you thought the ‘meaningful vote’ idea was dead and buried, you would be wrong. Like a ghost haunting May’s government, the House of Lords resurrected the amendment (put forward by Viscount Hailsham, but colloquially referred to as the ‘Grieve 2.0’ amendment) and passed it back to the House of Commons for another session of political chaos. It is interesting to note the difference in opinions between the two Houses on the ‘meaningful vote’ – the Lords have consistently voted in favour of a vote in parliament in the case of a ‘no deal’ Brexit. By contrast, the Commons have been more divided.
After months of work, the EU Withdrawal Bill FINALLY passes through parliament. Here, the House of Commons voted to reject Hailsham’s amendment on a ‘meaningful vote’. Grieve and his fellow would-be ‘Tory rebels’ also sided against the amendment on the basis that the Commons' Speaker would decide the government’s strategy for a ‘no deal’ Brexit if necessary. For Grieve, this was an ‘obvious acknowledgement of the sovereignty [of parliament]’ – so all happy then? Not quite. The EU withdrawal may have been passed (and will now become law when the Queen gives the bill ‘Royal Assent’), but there were other issues in parliament. Most notably, The Independent reported the moment when ‘Brexit lost the dignity it never had’– Labour MP Naz Shah was forced to attend the voting lobby ‘high on morphine’ in a wheelchair with a sick bucket. Currently being treated for nerve pain after a hit-and-run collision, Shah was denied the usual convention of being ‘nodded through’ (voting externally) because votes were too ‘tight’. Lib Dem deputy leader, Jo Swinson, (who was forced to do the same whilst 9 months pregnant) later tweeted her disgust noting ‘this is no way to run a Parliament in a modern democracy’.
So what happens next?
Parliament has finished with Brexit now – correct? Of course not. Although most areas have been agreed on, there are still some significant points that remain untouched. Importantly for the EU, the UK must agree on ‘geographical indicators’. That is, at present, certain regional products are protected… Champagne can only come from Champagne in France and Cornish Pasties can only come from Cornwall. This is upheld using EU legislation, but the UK has not decided on the path it wishes to take. This is a key deal breaker for the EU and needs to be resolved before the UK leaves. Brexit means Brexit and Champagne means Champagne – but for how much longer?
If these two weeks have tickled your taste buds, prepare yourself for next week when the EU meets at an important summit in Brussels. This will likely result in further discussions over the Northern Ireland border disputes among other areas. However, the key summit comes in October later this year. Here, negotiators will put together a final Brexit deal which will probably result in an explosion of Brexit-related news and, more likely, Brexit-related memes. Keep an eye out because this will be the key event on your Brexit calendars. If a deal is not struck, another summit will be scheduled for December 2018. A tense sprint-finish awaits May and her team. Watch this space.
On the current trajectory, assuming these meetings are successful, the UK will leave the European Union at 11pm GMT on 29th March. The transition period will then end on 31st December 2020. And then, hopefully, we can stop talking about Brexit. Hopefully.
Sources and Further Reading
- ‘Brexit: MPs reject bid to stay in EEA amid Labour revolt’, BBC News, (14 June 2018).
- ‘Daily Shakeup’, Open Europe, (11 June 2018).
- ‘Daily Shakeup’, Open Europe, (6 June 2018).
- ‘Daily Shakeup’, Open Europe, (8 June 2018).
- ‘Ministers win key Brexit bill vote after concession’, BBC News, (12 June 2018).
- ‘No man is a Love Island’, BBC Brexitcast, (14 June 2018).
- A. Dickinson and T. McTague, ‘May puts Tory rebellion back on’, Politico,(14 June 2018).
- B. Kentish, ‘Brexit: Government publishes backstop plan after last-ditch compromise between Theresa May and David Davis’, The Independent, (7 June 2018).
- T. Peck, ‘An MP was wheeled through the voting lobbies, high on morphine and carrying a sick bucket, the moment Brexit lost the dignity it never had’, The Independent, (20 June 2018).
- P. Walker, ‘Brexit ‘meaningful vote’: how the row has unfolded’, The Guardian, (19 June 2018).
- H. Zefferman, ‘Peers force another vote on final say in Brexit’, The Times, (19 June 2018).
Image: UK Parliament @Flickr