Last night, Prime Minister Theresa May had possibly her most successful evening in the House of Commons in well over a year. After months of discussions around exactly what kind of Brexit Parliament could support, a way out of the impasse may have been found.
After seeing off amendments to her Withdrawal Agreement by Yvette Cooper and Dominic Grieve that could have frustrated her Brexit Deal, Mrs May received a lifeline in the form of another amendment proposed by backbench Conservative MP, Sir Graham Brady.
The proposal would remove the highly controversial Irish backstop from the current Withdrawal Agreement, whilst exploring vague “alternative arrangements” to avoid a hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland. The Brady amendment passed by 317 votes to 301 on Tuesday evening - giving the Prime Minister the mandate to return to Brussels for renegotiation, that she was lacking just a fortnight ago.
In what must come as a relief for Mrs May, it appears that the Conservative Party and the DUP have finally found something to rally around to avoid a no-deal Brexit. If she is able to return from Brussels with legally binding changes to the backstop, as set out in the Brady amendment, it looks increasingly likely that her deal can get through Parliament.
But the immediate response from the European Union has been hostile. Following last night’s vote, Donald Tusk, President of the European Council, reiterated that “the backstop is part of the Withdrawal Agreement, and the Withdrawal Agreement is not open for re-negotiation.” Despite this, the EU have shifted their position in the past, and many Conservative MPs are convinced that the growing threat of no-deal will force their hand once again. But the EU are likely to want concessions for changing their position on the backstop.
In the past they have suggested that the Withdrawal Agreement (and its backstop arrangement) could be improved if the Prime Minister shifted her so-called ‘red lines’ - the demands that the government will not negotiate over. For example, if the government abandoned its red line on immigration, and contemplated a closer relationship with the Customs Union and Single Market, the backstop could become unnecessary.
But May cannot concede that red line - any move in this direction would undoubtedly result in a withdrawal of support from dozens of her own Eurosceptic MPs in the House of Commons. So it seems she might have escaped one quagmire only to fall headlong into another.
An alternative proposal - the so-called ‘Malthouse Compromise’ - is gathering support across the Tory back benches. Named after housing minister, Kit Malthouse, the compromise has earned the backing of leavers as well as some remain supporting MPs, like Nicky Morgan.
Morgan, the former Education Secretary, said in a statement that the plan “provides for exit from the EU on time with a new backstop, which would be acceptable indefinitely, but which incentivises us all to reach a new future relationship. It ensures there is no need for a hard border with Ireland.”
In the event that no new arrangement on the backstop could be reached, the Malthouse Compromise suggests that the UK would resort to a managed no-deal. The PM would have to ask the EU to honour the previously-agreed transition period until 2021, which would allow time for both sides to prepare and the UK to exit on World Trade Organisation terms.
Whilst there is seemingly a majority for the Prime Minister’s agreement (minus the backstop), the situation still rests on a knife edge. The result may come down to which side blinks first - and any significant concession in May’s negotiating position will likely force Parliament in a stalemate once again. In the meantime, expect an array of speculative possibilities to be thrown about by various MPs from across the House of Commons.
The Withdrawal Agreement is set to return for a second ‘meaningful vote’ on February 13th. If Theresa May can gain changes on the backstop, then we may be well on our way to exiting the EU with a deal on March 29th. If not, then we find ourselves no further forward than in December last year - with only 44 days left until we leave.
A Backbench Report by James Plumb.