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Dublin: 7 °C Tuesday 19 March, 2019
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Here's why Theresa May is set to risk another vote on her battered Brexit deal

It’s been a bizarre week – but does the prime minister finally have Brexiteers backed in a corner?

Image: Victoria Jones

AFTER THE WITHDRAWAL Agreement was first defeated in the House of Commons by a historic majority of 230 votes, all the way back in January, Theresa May told her parliament that it wasn’t good enough to vote against something, they had to vote for something.

Last night, they voted against no deal. And tonight, while they haven’t quite voted FOR something, they have at least voted to ask for more time to figure out what to do.

In the midst of the coming process, it’s hoped consensus will at last build behind a plan that a majority of MPs can get behind. 

How long that takes is another question altogether. 

A majority of 413 parliamentarians voted tonight in favour of delaying the date the UK is due to leave the EU, with 202 voting against the government’s motion. 

The motion proposed seeking an extension until 30 June and noted that if the House passed the withdrawal agreement by next Wednesday then the three month extension would be sought “for the purpose of passing the necessary EU exit legislation”. 

Tonight’s vote is a statement of intent, but isn’t actually legally binding.

However, it does give May a legitimate reason to hold another vote on her battered Brexit deal, considering that that proposal was within the evening’s main motion.

As recently as Tuesday MPs voted down her deal by a majority of 149 votes. That was despite new assurances from the EU on Monday night to address Brexiteers’ fears of being trapped in the backstop mechanism.

The new proposals suggested an arbitration system to deal with any disputes that might arise between the EU and UK if the backstop had to be activated. 

Brexiteers – including the DUP and members of Tory group the ERG – said on Tuesday that these new assurances didn’t go far enough, arguing that if no one “acted in bad faith” the UK would be trapped in the backstop indefinitely anyway.

They used analysis from attorney general Geoffrey Cox to back up their position: Cox told the House of Commons that his earlier advice – that the backstop could “endure indefinitely” without a time limit or exit mechanism – remained true.

Tonight’s vote, despite it being the first victory of the week for Theresa May, also showed what a slim grasp she has on her party.

Among those who opposed the Prime Minister’s extension were Cabinet ministers Liam Fox, Chris Grayling, Andrea Leadsom, and Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay (who, bizarrely, had argued in favour of the motion in the debate earlier today). 

The government’s chief whip Julian Smith abstained from the vote.

Former ministers Boris Johnson and Dominic Raab (an ex-Brexit Secretary) also voted against the extension. The original former Brexit secretary, David Davis, voted to back May’s motion and delay Brexit.

The Conservative MPs who voted against the government motion tonight will not face punishment, as a free vote had been offered by May.

Many Brexiteers fear any extension to the exit date will make Brexit more unlikely (with the prospect of Brexit not taking place at all becoming more likely the longer that extension goes on).

Now what?

It’s now up to the EU to agree to grant an extension, and it needs the agreement of all EU Council members – ie, the leaders of remaining 27 EU countries – to sign off. 

Up until now, EU leaders have said that without good reason, there would be no extension. In the words of Taoiseach Leo Varadkar:

If there is an extension, what’s the point to it? We don’t want a rolling cliff edge where tough decisions that they have to make get put off until the end of June, the end of July or September.
That is not going to work for anyone.

Belgian MEP Guy Verhofstadt, who heads the EU Parliament’s Brexit Steering Group, put it more forcefully: 

Under no circumstances an extension in the dark! Unless there is a clear majority in the House of Commons for something precise, there is no reason at all for the European Council to agree on a prolongation. 
Even the motion tabled for this evening by the UK Government recognises this.

The EU Council is due to meet next Thursday 21 and Friday 22 March; it’s expected that the ‘Meaningful Vote 3′ will be held in the House of Commons before then.

Brexit Source: PA Wire/PA Images

The likelihood of May passing her deal this time is significantly higher than before as parliament runs out of other options.

They may not like the deal but Brexiteers have argued that the UK has lost its leverage in negotiations in the wake of the votes ruling out a no-deal Brexit at any point (yesterday) and in favour of postponing Brexit day (tonight). 

Already, efforts are under way to get Tory Eurosceptics and the DUP on board. Reports have emerged suggesting the ERG and the unionists could be persuaded to change their votes if Cox could offer refined advice. 

Asked by the Guardian whether he would vote for the deal if the DUP were happy with it, ERG leader Jacob Rees-Mogg said:

Yes. I am a unionist but it is difficult for me to be more unionist than the DUP and if they are happy with the way of getting out of the backstop and that is good enough for Northern Ireland then I expect it would be good enough for some of us.

Arlene Foster, speaking in the US, indicated today that a deal still could be reached, saying: “When you come to the end of a negotiation that’s when you really start to see the whites in people’s eyes and you get down to the point where you can make a deal.”

EU elections 

If parliament rejects Theresa May’s deal again, then the UK could request an extension longer than three months in order to avoid a cliff-edge exit at the end of this month. 

This could mean that the UK would have to run candidates in the European Parliament elections scheduled for 24 May – something that the prime minister has said she’s dead set against.

An extension until 30 June would mean Brexit happening the day before the new EU Parliament sits. Ukip founder Nigel Farage has already said that he would run as a ‘Brexit MEP’ if the UK was compelled to run candidates.

Earlier today, Tánaiste Simon Coveney spoke of a possible Brexit postponement of 21 months, saying that it would “give a long reflection period for the British political system to look at how they want to approach Brexit again”.

This could mean holding a general election in order to gain a majority in the House for some sort of Brexit, or even holding a second referendum.

Columnist Jonathan Freedland, writing in The Guardian tonight, argues that Theresa May finally has the Brexiteers where she wants them. 

“The ERG and DUP either swallow their objections and vote for May’s deal, or they face the prospect of a long delay to Brexit – perhaps for the best part of two years. Given the mayhem on show these past few days, who would bet what might happen to their precious Brexit project between now and 2021? They might lose it altogether.”

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About the author:

Grainne Ní Aodha and Daragh Brophy

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