We are at the start of what promises to be an extraordinary two weeks in UK politics and the start of the PM (and Leader of the Opposition) dealing with the reality of the Parliamentary arithmetic.
The past month (at least) has been highly frustrating for many because the players at the very top of politics have refused to budge from positions that most commentators believe they do not have the power to implement.
May’s narrative has been that this is the best deal possible and that it is a choice between this and No Deal. She has on one hand asked for reassurances on the Backstop from the EU to quell her Leave backbenchers (always likely to fall short of the legally binding changes the DUP demands) and on the other has appeared to run down the clock by pushing the vote back and pressuring those afraid of crashing out to come on board. Despite the apparently fruitlessness of these efforts she has point blank refused to discuss a Plan B should her deal be scuppered, instead she has steadfastly kept putting one foot in front of the other as we trudged to the January 15th vote.
In the past week we have been briefed that the PM called trade union leaders, that she has been willing to adopt a Labour amendment that protects workers’ rights, and that she has been willing to adopt a Conservative Brexiteer amendment that time limits the Backstop. We have also seen the Japanese PM visit No.10 and urge us to not to crash out, a succession of choreographed interventions by business groups and leaders urging that politics be put aside….. and yet we are where we were, with the PM seemingly heading for a defeat in the Commons.
The PM is still gamely seeking something from the European Union that can make the offer more palatable to her backbenches and we are told to expect a “reassuring” letter from the EU today but underlying the briefings is the message that the Deal will not be re-opened. As part of this process the UK Government is still preparing for a No Deal (see last week’s trial of HGV queuing at Manston Airport) but the EU, despite the Prime Minister’s phone diplomacy, is refusing to budge.
So, the PM may not be heading for defeat by the three figure margin predicted if she had gone ahead with the vote in December but it looks like she is heading for a defeat nonetheless.
Labour’s Fence Sitting
Similarly, the Opposition’s fence sitting is entering its final stages. Corbyn has stuck to the party’s conference motion that has a sequential approach – defeat the Deal, move for a General Election, if rebuffed consider all other options – that has meant he too does not have to publicly engage with future options until these steps have been taken. Particularly the tricky option of whether to back a 2nd referendum as a way of circumventing the impasse.
On the Marr show this weekend Corbyn didn’t budge from this but he has only a few days to maintain it. It looks like Corbyn will push the Vote of Confidence in the Government on Wednesday. Not many people expect this to succeed (the DUP have indicated they will support the Government in this scenario) and then Labour are forced to deal with reality too. Does the party shift to backing calls for a 2nd referendum, or does Corbyn urge May to go back to Brussels and seek a deal that can command their support? There are persistent briefings that if May shifts towards Labour’s position on protecting workers rights (by mirroring the EU in the future) and entering a permanent Customs Union (key to solving the Irish border issue) then he may whip his MPs to back the deal or abstain.
Politics abhors a vacuum and perhaps the most notable development in 2019 has been the slow but inexorable taking of control by Parliament. Last week saw two critical developments.
First we saw an amendment to the Finance Bill (the legislation that enacts the Budget) brought by Yvette Cooper MP which sought to tie the Government’s hands in the event of a No Deal scenario by preventing new taxes. The aim being to make it even more unpalatable to No.10. The more controversial clipping of No.10’s wings by Parliament was the Dominic Grieve MP amendment that obligates the PM, if her Deal vote is lost, to come back to the Commons within three days to set out her Plan B. This undercut one of the remaining tactics of the Prime Minister – namely that of running the clock down and bouncing Parliament into backing it to prevent crashing out on March 29th. However, this was a controversial break from convention with much ire directed at the Speaker of the Commons, John Bercow, who apparently ignored the advice of clerks to allow the Grieve amendment to be voted upon.
The weekend saw briefings (seemingly from No.10) that an even more controversial change was being discussed on the backbenches. This is that MPs want to take from the Government their last remaining mechanism for controlling their destiny – backbenchers (including former Conservative Ministers) are seeking a way to seize control of business in the Commons, so that backbench motions take precedence over government motions. This sounds arcane and procedural but it matters because it means that a backbencher can introduce a bill which could override the EU Withdrawal Act and compel the government to seek an extension to Article 50, presumably by imposing a legal duty on ministers. This was always the last redoubt of Brexiteers – only a new law can override an old law and only the Executive can introduce legislation – and if this does proceed then Parliament has taken control.
No.10 are briefing hard on this presumably because they want to spook Brexiteer backbenchers into backing May’s deal but if it is true (its origins – the Chief Whip overhearing the plot in a cloakroom – are iffy) then it is a huge development. Some may call this a constitutional crisis in the making, others that this is what happens when an Executive without a majority tries to impose its will on the Legislature, but we are entering territory that is genuinely uncharted.
Anyone who tells you they know what will happen next is not being entirely truthful….but we can make some informed guesses.
The first is that if the Deal is defeated and if Labour cannot force a General Election then January 21st becomes the key date when the PM must have come back to Parliament with her Plan B options (as the Grieve amendment dictates).
At that point May has some decisions to make. Will she will seek a Deal that can command a Parliamentary majority with Labour and her moderate MPs (but antagonises her backbenches)? Will she try to get her deal through Parliament again and risk backbenchers pushing the button on taking control from the Executive? Will she think the situation is intolerable and decide to go back to the country in the form of a General Election or a 2nd referendum?
Either way we have reached the crunch time when decisions can no longer be postponed.