Politics is in a vortex of fast moving events over which the government has little control. According to the likely scenario, Theresa May will lose the meaningful vote badly next Tuesday night. What happens next is in uncharted waters. But this is how the meaningful vote fits into the prescribed timetable, courtesy of the FT:
The vote is a legal obligation under the UK’s 2018 EU Withdrawal Act, which says such a vote must take place “before the European Parliament decides whether it consents to the withdrawal agreement being concluded on behalf of the EU”.
DECEMBER 13-14 EU summit
At one point, before the negotiations made enough progress to allow the EU to call a special Brexit summit in November, it was thought that the bloc’s regular December summit would be the last opportunity to do a deal. The deal is now done. But if the UK parliament votes it down just before the December summit begins, Brexit may overshadow the EU gathering all the same. EU leaders insist that they have no intention of reopening the 585-page withdrawal treaty, but they might accept changing the accompanying political declaration if Mrs May comes to Brussels having lost the big vote in the Commons.
DECEMBER 31 OR BEFORE?
Parliament takes control? If Mrs May is defeated in a meaningful vote on her deal on December 10, the government will have to report back on its plans for next steps within 21 days, according to the EU Withdrawal Act. This may be the opportunity for parliament, in which the majority is against a hard Brexit, to take a greater role. Following a Commons defeat for the government in December, MPs will be able to assert their point of view by amending the new plans set out by the government — whether to come out against a no-deal Brexit, call for a second referendum or recommend Norway style membership of the EU’s single market.
Deal passed into UK law If, by contrast, the Commons approves the Brexit deal in a meaningful vote, the government will put forward a new piece of legislation: the EU (Withdrawal Agreement) Bill. This would pass into law some of Brexit’s biggest issues, such as the agreement on citizens’ rights, the financial settlement and the details of the transition. It will be a hugely consequential piece of legislation. There may be many battles on individual details.
UNTIL MARCH 29 2019 EU ratification
Before any Brexit deal can take effect, it must also be approved by the European Parliament in a plenary vote. Any legally questionable elements of the withdrawal treaty could also be referred to the ECJ by MEPs.
There is a wild card that could disrupt even this bumpy progression. Labour have not budged from their pledge to move a vote of no confidence in the hope of winning a general election. Conservative MPs however badly split will unite to support the government. Jeremy Corbyn writing in the Guardian seems unconvinced by his own case for a general election as he looks ahead to other alternatives to the May plan, hinting at a preference for a second referendum. For this reason – or instinctive distaste perhaps? – Corbyn has chosen to ignore the DUP’s promise to join Labour in the vote no confidence unless the government pledges “ to get rid of the backstop”. But surely every body knows it’s impossible to meet this condition in a few days – or ever – if couched in such absolute terms. Even Norway plus requires a backstop unless the holy grail of a final deal can be discovered that makes the backstop redundant.
Supporting the combined opposition in a vote of no confidence could well lead to turning the government out. By itself this would only add constitutional to political chaos and increase the chances of the No Deal default very few want. To begin with, it gives the government 14 days to come up with an alternative policy that creates a new majority or if that fails, it precipitates the general election that hardly anybody really wants either. The DUP of course dare to be different: an election has no terrors for them. But other than show their bravado as a mean machine for harvesting votes back in their own little world, what would an election achieve?
More to the point, provisions for a second vote exist already in the prescribed scenario, under marginally less fraught conditions. Rather than pursue relentless negavity, it would open up opportunities to be constructive.
Ministers are rushing round trying to postpone Armageddon on Tuesday. Even if they fail by then, another chance opens up for the Commons to vote on a revised proposal in the New Year, as the above timetable sets out. Labour who are almost as divided as the Tories, should stay their hand next Tuesday. If they persist with a confidence vote, the DUP should in their own interests resist joining them and give the Conservatives a second chance in the New Year to chart a course that could win cross party support.
The only question for them in an early vote of confidence is : are they prepared for a Labour government led by Jeremy Corbyn? Further ahead, they need to join in efforts to come up with a better solution to the backstop other than today’s flat negativity. The obvious partners in that enterprise are the British and Irish governments who need to end their sulky stand off quickly and get down to resuming business together.
Right now, Theresa May is resisting mounting pressure to pull the vote and seems prepared to go down in flames. While the prospect may give commentators a thrill, it is against the interests of the UK and Ireland
As David Alan Green of the FT reminds us, a far bigger agenda awaits.
The backstop in respect of the Irish border is an insurance provision. It is an agreement between the parties on what the state of affairs should be in the event of something else not happening. That something is a full relationship agreement between an independent UK and the EU. This needs to be in place by the end of 2022 at the latest, as that is the last possible date the transition period can be extended to under the draft exit agreement. Only if there is no relationship agreement by then does the Irish backstop provision apply.
If there is no relationship agreement by 2022, then all the horrors associated with a no-deal Brexit will simply re-emerge, from customs blockages to food and medicine shortages. The position of the Irish border, though of the upmost importance, will be one of many problems. And no sensible person believes the UK will be in a position to deal with these by 2022, just as it has signally failed to get ready over the past two years or so.
There not being such a deal likely to be ready by 2022 is a good reason for a responsible and rational politician, acting in the national interest, to seek a revocation of the Article 50 notification. But they are closing their eyes to this looming problem, just as they did with the consequences of making a premature and ill-prepared Article 50 notification. The EU27 are not so dumb as to make the same mistake; that is why they are protecting their interests and those of Ireland in the event of there being no relationship agreement. It is unfortunate that UK politicians are preoccupied only with the manifestation of this dreadful eventuality, rather than the eventuality itself.
Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London