Once More Unto Brussels
Theresa May suffered a humiliating defeat when MPs rejected her Brexit deal by 432 votes to 202. In the weeks leading up to the vote on 15 January it was clear she was heading for a heavy defeat. Yet she had no alternative but to press ahead, having postponed the vote from last December, and with the 29 March leave deadline drawing near. She had kicked the can down the road too often. It was now time to stand up and be counted.
The margin of defeat by 230 votes was the highest on parliamentary record, beating that of Ramsay MacDonald’s minority government in 1924. Yet unlike MacDonald’s defeat at the hands of the Tory opposition, May’s loss was the result of 118 Tories voting with Labour and other opposition parties. She was even supported by 3 Labour MPs and by Frank Field, Independent, who was elected as Labour. It was not therefore a defeat for the government as such, as it was not solely the official opposition and other parties that inflicted it.
Labour’s hopes of a general election were thwarted when it lost a vote of No Confidence by 19 votes. On this occasion the dissident Tories stood firmly behind their leader. As did the DUP members who earlier had voted against her deal. But given the scale of May’s Brexit defeat, Labour had little alternative than to call her and her government to account. Labour lost the No Confidence vote because, however much many Tories dislike her Brexit deal, their fear of a Corbyn government is infinitely greater. They tolerate May knowing that she will not lead them into the next general election.
May is engaging with MPs of all parties to reach an agreement she can take back to Brussels and secure a deal that parliament can support; a Plan B. But this appears to be a forlorn task as EU negotiators have made it clear that no significant changes can be made to her deal. This rules out any meaningful alteration to the Northern Ireland backstop. The guarantee is that there will be no hard border in Ireland as long as agreement has not been reached on a frictionless trade deal. The demands of the hard Brexiteers that the backstop has to be time-limited to enable the UK to opt out unilaterally seems to be off the EU table.
Corbyn insisted that he would only engage with May if a No-deal Brexit was taken off the table. May made much of Corbyn’s ‘refusal’, accusing him of talking to Hamas, Hezbollah and the IRA. (For the record, Corbyn at no time spoke to the IRA, while British governments have repeatedly done so). But as Labour’s Yvette Cooper discovered, the offer of talks was a sham; with May refusing to budge on her red lines. A No-deal Brexit is the default position if May’s ‘new’ deal is voted down. It is also an option for May as she wants to hold the Tories together. Taking a No-deal off the table would split her party in two, and end her chances of winning support for her deal.
If a general election and a second referendum are ruled out, then nothing else is on the table: not even a Norway plus option. Such a deal would need long negotiations. May will not seek it and her party will not replace her with someone who might. Extending Article 50, which in any case would need the approval of the EU, will simply further delay the process of leaving the EU with little prospect of squeezing real improvements out of the EU negotiators. But even if it were agreed, the UK would still leave the EU, possibly two years later than scheduled. And British business would still be in a state of limbo, waiting for a deal that restores confidence and stability.
Labour have promised further No-Confidence motions if May’s ‘new’ deal fails to win the support of MPs. In the absence of a successful No-Confidence motion and a general election, Labour’s preference is for a second referendum. It’s said that party members are crying out for this. But where is the evidence? Most of Labour’s front bench, including Jeremy Corbyn, are opposed to going back to the people for a second opinion. Supporters of a second referendum hope that the original decision will be overturned, but it could have the opposite effect and further alienate voters. It would be a huge gamble. The 2016 referendum divided the country. It revealed a deep-seated anger with politics and politicians. A second referendum would simply further deepen political disillusionment and division. There would be a serious loss of faith in parliamentary democracy.
The UK is a parliamentary democracy where the Crown-in-Parliament is sovereign, with ministers governing on her behalf. It is a democracy where an MP represents her/his constituents, exercising their judgement on the issues of the day. A referendum transfers the sovereignty of parliament to the people. At such a time the UK becomes a plebiscitary democracy; a challenge to the sovereignty of parliament. It is for this reason that referenda are used in the UK only in the event of major constitutional and political change.
In 2013 David Cameron promised a referendum on UK membership of the EU for purely party-political reasons and included it in the Tories 2015 election manifesto. And when the result went against him- he was a Remainer- he resigned and fled to his £25,000 garden shed. He left his colleagues to deal with what has proved to be a nest of vipers. It was a cowardly act on Cameron’s part.
Labour’s best option is to avoid leaving its mark on any Brexit deal. The Tories need to be remembered as the party that introduced Brexit and took the UK out of the EU on particularly bad, potentially damaging terms.
Return To Class Politics
A vote on an amendment to the Withdrawal Agreement on 29 January takes Theresa May and Parliament back to square one. The Withdrawal Agreement (May’s Brexit deal) was overwhelmingly rejected by MPs on 15 January. Now, as a result of a positive vote for the Brady amendment (Graham Brady is Chair of the Tories 1922 Committee) Theresa May is returning to Brussels with a request for changes to the legally binding agreement.
Brady’s amendment calls for “alternative arrangements” to be made in place of the current Northern Ireland backstop. What these arrangements are no one knows, least of all Brady himself. And Theresa May is no wiser. It is more in hope than expectation that May will come back with a revamped deal that MPs can support. The EU’s chief negotiators, Michel Barnier and Donald Tusk, as well as French President Macron, have said publicly that the Agreement is not up for renegotiation.
If on the other hand they relent a little, understanding the gravity of the situation for the UK, and May manages to win minor changes to the backstop, it could encourage a significant number of Tory MPs to change tack and vote for the ‘new’ deal. With Labour ruling out a No-deal, and an early general election and a second referendum unlikely, its MPs will face a difficult choice.
Corbyn is trying to leave the EU, having accepted the 2016 referendum result, with the least possible damage to the economy and jobs. Labour should not be seen trying to delay Brexit, which is simply another way of stopping it altogether. A final settlement of the issue will help Labour. It is in its interests for there to be an agreed deal. But whatever is the deal Labour should not be held responsible for it. It should be shouted from the rooftops that Brexit is entirely of the Tory party’s making.
With Brexit settled Labour can get back to class politics. Whether the UK is in or out of the EU, voters will face the same problems of low-paid, insecure, employment, rising rents, cuts in essential services, greater inequality, and further austerity. They will have a clear choice at the next election, whenever it comes, between more pain with little gain under a Tory government. Or a Labour government determined to rid the country of the damaging policies inflicted on the great majority of the populace.