Pictured: Prime Minister May is increasingly politically isolated from her own MPs.
It is crunch time at Westminster once again, as Theresa May finds herself facing what could be the most pivotal week in her premiership. Tomorrow, MPs will vote again on the Prime Minister’s much criticised Withdrawal Agreement.
Should the WA fall, as many are predicting, MPs will take control of the Brexit process, holding a succession of votes on Wednesday and Thursday to answer two crucial questions on what course Parliament will take on Brexit. Firstly, do they support leaving the European Union without a deal on March 29th? Secondly, and alternatively, will they push for an extension to the Article 50 process?
Last Ditch Efforts
Since Mrs May suffered a humiliating defeat over her Withdrawal Agreement in January - the largest defeat in the House of Commons history - efforts have been put into attempting to ease the fears of Brexiteer MPs over the controversial Irish backstop.
In recent days, Attorney General Geoffrey Cox and Brexit Secretary, Steve Barclay have travelled to Brussels in an attempt to find a satisfactory solution to the issue. The talks, however, seem to have changed very little - despite initial hopes of securing either a unilateral exit mechanism from the backstop, or a fixed end date to the backstop - and culminated with Cox claiming that the Backstop (a clause that the UK government previously insisted on) could threaten the human rights of people in Northern Ireland.
Focus has now seemingly shifted to securing an enhanced “arbitration mechanism” - a clause which would allow the UK to provide formal notice that the backstop should come to an end. Even if May secures this, with no formal announcement having been made, it is very likely that sceptical MPs will be presented with the same deal, word for word, that they resoundingly rejected just over a month ago.
Pictured: Attorney General Geoffrey Cox MP has struggled to win concessions from Brussels.
May Left Rudderless?
Should May’s deal fall again, MPs will vote on Wednesday on whether or not they support leaving the European Union without a deal on March 29th.
Whilst such a measure will likely gather the support of pro-Brexit MPs, and while the government may well whip in favour of it, the Tories will likely face a wave of rebellion within the ranks - including from Cabinet ministers such as Amber Rudd, David Gauke and Greg Clark - that could see No Deal ruled out completely.
Bizarrely, this result might provide one final opportunity for Mrs May. As reported by BuzzFeed last week, “senior figures in Theresa May’s team privately fear she will lose the second "meaningful vote" on her Brexit deal and are gaming whether they can secure a majority at a third attempt.”
With a No Deal Brexit ruled out, the Prime Minister may finally manage to get ardent Brexiteers onside for a third and final vote on her Withdrawal Agreement, due to the fear of a lengthy extension to Article 50, or the looming prospect of no Brexit altogether.
Pictured right to left: Amber Rudd, David Gauke, and Claire Perry are all potential cabinet rebels against a No Deal vote.
Kick it into the long grass?
So, if both the Withdrawal Agreement and No Deal are rejected by Parliament, MPs will then be forced to vote on whether or not they want an extension to the Article 50 process, delaying the UK’s departure from the EU. Of the three options likely to be presented to MPs this week, the prospect of extension seems the most likely to gather support from across the House of Commons.
Yet, whilst some members may be relieved to have ruled out no deal, extending Article 50 presents a wealth of problems of its own - most crucially, the length of any agreed extension. A small delay of perhaps one or two months is far more appetising than the prospect of nine months or even two years - both of which have been suggested.
A longer extension would undoubtedly trigger outrage amongst Brexiteers and create a whole raft of new problems for the government. Then there is the issue of whether the EU will agree to an extension. For the process to be delayed, it has to gain the approval of all 27 other member states. Whilst the European Union has broadly accepted an extension will be necessary, there are concerns about how much could realistically be achieve if government red lines do not shift, and many in Brussels and Westminster will be asking if it is really worth the economic uncertainty.
Although it has often been prophesied - wrongly - that certain events will define the future of British politics, as time runs out on negotiations, this week’s votes really do seem like they will come to be remembered for doing just that. Strap in.
A Backbench Report by James Plumb