MPs’ mixed messages increase chances of no-deal Brexit

MPs’ mixed messages increase chances of no-deal Brexit

The UK remains at loggerheads over the situation with Brexit. (File/AFP)

The House of Commons failed to decisively clear the Brexit fog on Tuesday night. While a non-binding amendment was passed that technically rules out the possibility of the UK crashing out of the EU without a deal, such “no deal” risks have potentially grown significantly as MPs sent out mixed, confused messages about their Brexit stance.

In effect, MPs declared that, while they reject no deal in principle, they also rejected the power to stop no deal — at least for now. This is because stronger amendments they considered, which would have allowed greater say for the House of Commons to, for instance, extend Article 50, were not approved.

The amendments voted on fell into several different categories, including indicative vote amendments, stopping no deal amendments, and so-called anti-Irish backstop amendments. The indicative amendments all failed, which prevents, for now at least, MPs having votes on a series of Brexit options, from the hardest to the softest of exits, to see where most support lies.

Only one of the anti-no deal amendments passed, but this was non-binding. This amendment by Conservative MP Caroline Spelman and Labour’s Jack Dromey “rejects the United Kingdom leaving the EU without a withdrawal agreement and future framework for the future relationship.”

However, other stronger amendments, including to extend Article 50, were shot down. An example was the one sponsored by Labour’s Yvette Cooper and Conservative Nick Boles, which was controversial because it was constitutionally innovative, inasmuch as it would have significantly empowered Parliament in relation to the executive in the weeks ahead.

With the failure of this and other comparable amendments, and the passage of the Spelman-Dromey text, Parliament has sent out a confusing, mixed message. As Cooper and Boles said on Tuesday night, “today MPs have voted to stop a no-deal Brexit. (But) we did not get enough support to ensure there could be a binding vote to avert no deal or require an extension of Article 50 if needed. We remain deeply concerned that there is no safeguard in place to prevent a cliff edge in March if the prime minister does not agree a deal in time.”

It would be a grave political failure if the two sides cannot even agree to mitigating deals in areas such as medical supplies

Andrew Hammond

A third set of amendments related to the proposed Irish backstop, which is, of course, a key part of the draft withdrawal deal May has negotiated with Brussels. One of these amendments, from Conservative MP Graham Brady, passed. It calls for the “Northern Ireland backstop to be replaced with alternative arrangements to avoid a hard border (between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland); supports leaving the EU with a deal and would therefore support the withdrawal agreement subject to this change.”

Speaking after Tuesday’s votes, Prime Minister Theresa May seized on the Brady amendment, claiming that the basis for a successful withdrawal deal is now clearer. While she acknowledged the “limited appetite” for such a change on the part of the EU, which could yet prove a significant understatement, she believes she can now go back to Brussels for a renegotiation that will provide changes to the backstop that will get the approval of MPs before the end of March.

In perhaps a last throw of the dice, May will now cling to this potential opening. She said on Tuesday that “what I’m talking about is not a further exchange of letters, but a significant and legally binding change to the withdrawal agreement.” But, also on Tuesday night, EU Council President Donald Tusk said that the withdrawal deal cannot be reopened for negotiation in any way, shape or form.

Unless compromise is more evident from one or both sides, this raises the prospects of a no-deal exit. The term no deal is widely misunderstood by much of the UK public, let alone international audiences. It means a situation whereby the UK and EU fail to agree a withdrawal deal under the terms of the two-year Article 50 process, which began in March 2017.

This scenario would mean that London will automatically leave the EU on March 29 without many, if not all, of the rules that regulate the UK’s relationship with the EU. Many economic relationships with the rest of the world would also be undermined, as these are underpinned by trade treaties that the Brussels-based club has agreed with key nations from Canada to Japan.

Another common mistaken view is that there is only one no-deal outcome, when there are actually multiple plausible scenarios. At the extreme end of the spectrum is a chaotic no-deal Brexit, whereby negotiations between Brussels and London break down acrimoniously, with the latter potentially refusing to pay the proposed £39 billion ($51 billion) divorce costs and the EU refusing to put any mitigating measures in place, including a transition period.

This chaotic option even now seems unlikely, but cannot be completely dismissed. It would be a grave political failure if the two sides cannot even arrange mitigating deals in areas such as medical supplies to cushion the impact of a no deal, given the massive potential problems that could ensue from this.

Taken overall, Tuesday’s votes have sent out a confused, mixed message and could have significantly increased the prospects of a no-deal exit, despite the Dromey-Spelman amendment. Much now depends on whether Brussels is bluffing in its strong stance against reopening the withdrawal treaty and this issue will come, potentially explosively, to a head in February as the clock ticks down to March’s deadline.

  • Andrew Hammond is an Associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics
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