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Plan A, Plan B, Brexit Plan and the Irish Backstop

After the Plan A agreement on UK’s withdrawal from the EU,1 that was agreed by Prime Minister Therese May and Brussels, notoriously failed in parliament on January 15, the cabinet had to come up with Plan B. For their part, the MPs proposed over a dozen amendments of their own for the January 29 vote.

An amendment drafted by Conservative Caroline Spelman and Labor’s Jack Dromey opposed UK leaving the EU without a “Withdrawal Agreement and Political Declaration,” failing, however, to give any details as to how this could be achieved.

Former Attorney General Dominic Grieve proposed an amendment to vote on Theresa May’s alternative plan before March 26: the Labor plan, a second referendum, no deal exit, or the Norwegian scenario for relations with the EU. Some Labor backbenchers and MPs from other opposition parties, including the Liberal Democrats, the Green Party and Plaid Cymru, supported the amendment.

Labor MP Yvette Cooper and Tory MP Nick Boles proposed an amendment to extend Article 50 and postpone UK’s withdrawal date from March 29 until December 31, 2019, if the prime minister was unable to secure parliamentary backing for her deal, which would require approval by Brussels. Some Tory backbenchers and a number of MPs from opposition parties supported this amendment, and so did senior Labor MPs, who called on the party to vote in favor, while requesting that the Article 50 extension be reduced. This move caused misgivings among Labor MPs representing constituencies that had voted for leaving the EU. The amendment also had the backing of those calling for a second referendum and opponents of a no-deal Brexit. However, critics on the Tory side argued that the amendment would only defer the decision without necessarily helping achieve it. In essence, this initiative would have put parliament in control of Brexit in case the deal fell through. Journalists called the amendment a “legislative torpedo” designed to deprive the cabinet of its essential powers to set the parliamentary agenda. Speaking at the Commons, May said the amendments put forward by Grieve and Cooper sought “to create and exploit mechanisms that allow Parliament to usurp the proper role of the executive.” She went on to say that “such actions would be unprecedented, and have far-reaching and long-term consequences for the way the United Kingdom is governed.”2

The amendment by lawmaker Graham Brady, who chairs the influential 1922 Committee of Conservative backbenchers, was headed in an opposite direction. It addressed the Irish backstop plan, which is the main sticking point that has been preventing parliament from approving the Brexit deal. This provision consisted of keeping the UK within the EU Customs Union until the question on the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland is resolved.3 Under the 1998 Good Friday Agreement a hard border between the two Irelands must be avoided, while Brexit would mean a closed border. Resolving this issue turned out to be as complicated as squaring the circle, with Brexiteers fearing that the UK may remain in the EU Customs Union indefinitely without the right to a unilateral withdrawal or the right to enter into trade deals with third countries.

The Brady amendment consisted of replacing the backstop with “alternative arrangements to avoid a hard border.” Conservative Brexiteers called this wording ambiguous and said that it failed to address their concerns. Nevertheless, pro-Brexit leaders, including Boris Johnson, were ready to support the Brady amendment.

The prime minister asked the Tories to support the amendment in order to enable her to negotiate with the EU on this matter. By backing an amendment that virtually scrapped her deal with the EU, Theresa May has been able to get the ball rolling again. Her fellows in the Conservative Party believe that she should have warned Brussels a long time ago that the backstop arrangement stood no chance in parliament. By engaging in all this political maneuvering on the Brady amendment within the Tory group, Brexiteers wanted to win a few weeks’ time only to have the deal fail once again in February.

Legislators from the Democratic Unionist Party, which is essential for Theresa May’s minority government, were ready to vote for the Brady amendment, since getting a no-deal Brexit off the table (under the Cooper amendment) would mean raising the odds of it actually happening.

All in all, while the Tories were split over the intensity of post-Brexit ties with the EU, Labor MPs were unable to agree among themselves on whether the country should leave the EU at all.

While a majority on the withdrawal deal has yet to emerge at Westminster, it is already clear that there is a majority against a no-deal Brexit, which weakens London’s hand in its negotiations with Brussels. This, along with the results of the 2016 referendum, is why Theresa May is not willing to rule out the possibility of exiting the EU without a deal.

While non-binding, these amendments do create certain political commitments, except for the Cooper amendment, which, had it made it into law, would have forced the cabinet to respect it.

Just a few hours before the Commons vote, the government suffered yet another defeat, this time in the House of Lords, where peers backed a Labor motion by a majority of 152 votes to avoid a no-deal Brexit with 283 in favor and 131 opposed.

The vote on the amendments in the House of Commons went as follows: the Grieve amendment was rejected 321 to 301, and so was the Cooper amendment with 321 against and 298 in favor, sending the pound tumbling lower. The Spelman-Dromey amendment passed 318 to 310, and the Brady amendment was also approved 317 to 301.

Liberal Democrat leader Vince Cable said the Commons had given the prime minister contradictory instructions to avoid a no-deal exit but pursue a course of action that would lead to a no-deal exit.

Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon wrote: “The House of Commons could have asserted itself tonight - instead it indulged the PM’s decision to chase a fairytale at the behest of the DUP/ERG, and increased the risk of no deal in the process. A woeful abdication of responsibility.”

Business leaders were also unhappy with the delay, accusing the MPs of going around in circles and extending uncertainty.

The prime minister caved in to Brexiteers and the Ulster Unionist Party by agreeing to the Brady amendment. With its approval, Theresa May once again heads for Brussels. At the same time, the EU refuses to reopen the withdrawal agreement unless the prime minister gives up on her red line of keeping the UK in the EU Customs Union.

While the vote on the amendments did not close the Brexit debate, the media reported that the Tory Brexiteer and Remainer MPs reached an agreement known as the “Malthouse compromise” (named after Kit Malthouse). Jacob Rees-Mogg and Steve Baker from the European Research Group, a stronghold of hard-Brexit supporters, together with housing minister Kit Malthouse, agreed with Remainers that May would go to Brussels to reach a new backstop arrangement. If she fails, May will ask the EU to extend the transition period until December 31, 2021. In exchange, London would honor its financial commitments to the EU budget and respect the rights of EU citizens in the UK. This arrangement could enable both parties to prepare Brexit on WTO terms by the end of 2021.

The ball in now in Brussels’ court.

1 Agreement on the withdrawal of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland from the European Union and the European Atomic Energy Community, as endorsed by leaders at a special meeting of the European Council on 25 November 2018. Withdrawal Agreement and Political Declaration.



2 MPs voting on Brexit way forward. URL: 29.01.2019

3 Ананьева Е. Трилемма ирландской границы. URL: 30.01.2018

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