The last two weeks of failed Brexit progress clearly show that the trust in Westminster is too weak to heal our country’s divide.
The ‘meaningful vote’ for MPs on the terms of the EU withdrawal agreement was originally scheduled to take place prior to the parliamentary winter recess, but had been postponed due to the clear and widespread lack of support for the plans. Prime Minister Theresa May had faced a motion of no-confidence in her leadership from some members of her own party in December; a humiliating blow which threatened to push back progress on Brexit still more, a mere three months before the scheduled EU leave date.
In the intervening weeks, the Prime Minister sought clarifications from the EU on the issues that troubled MPs the most, but ultimately no detailed reforms to the terms of the deal were made. Tuesday 15th January was D-day for May’s Brexit plans. May’s speech to the House of Commons prior to the vote on Tuesday last week was met with jeers and disgruntled murmurs, signalling that her efforts to drum up increased support had been a failure.
May’s EU withdrawal deal was rejected by a majority of 230 votes; a rejection from more than two thirds of the House. This is the heftiest parliamentary defeat of any British PM in the democratic era. She vowed to return to the House of Commons with an alternative within the week, stating that the focus must be on ideas which are ‘genuinely negotiable’. Moments after the result was delivered, Donald Tusk, the president of the European council, tweeted appearing to urge the UK to cancel Brexit. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn dubbed the vote result ‘a catastrophic defeat’ for May, stating that he was tabling a motion of No Confidence in the government, whilst Labour MP Yvette Cooper urged May to seek an extension of Article 50 as a matter of urgency.
If a deal is impossible, and no one wants no deal, then who will finally have the courage to say what the only positive solution is?
— Donald Tusk (@eucopresident) 15 January 2019
The following day, Corbyn’s no-confidence motion was tabled. The government retained power, defeating the no confidence vote with 325 votes. In a statement on Wednesday evening following the verdict, May spoke of inviting MPs from all parties to come together to find a way forward – though stated her disappointment that Corbyn had chosen not to join in the talks. Labour had urged her to rule out no-deal Brexit, but she failed to include this assurance in her statement. By the end of the week, most Brits following along seemed to feel confused and exasperated in equal measure. In Thursday night’s ‘BBC Question Time’ television debate, the country’s collective exhaustion was palpable from the muted tone of the anger; as a nation, it’s clear we’ve been running out of steam for some time.
On Monday this week, May addressed MPs and vowed that the ‘hard won peace’ in Northern Ireland will not be lost, and that the Belfast Agreement would be honoured. She stated that she wishes to find out more about what MPs are demanding on the backstop, ahead of taking these demands back to the EU. May also announced that the £65 fee for EU citizens to apply for settled status will be waived. This announcement that there will be no financial barrier for any EU nationals who wish to stay was a highlight in an otherwise seemingly unproductive day in parliament, and was met with audible support from the House of Commons.
“With less than 40 working days until Brexit day remaining, we face our nation being plunged into a level of uncertainty and chaos which is unprecedented in the 21st century.”
The Prime Minister remained steadfast in her refusal to take no deal off the table by revoking Article 50, and also made it clear that she does not believe that there is a majority of support in the House for a 2nd referendum. So it seems that Plan B is just to try Plan A all over again, by holding the threat of a no deal Brexit over the heads of members of parliament. Corbyn responded to the Prime Minister’s statement, claiming that the government was in deep denial of the scale of the defeat the week prior, and claimed that the Prime Minister must change her red lines since the current deal is ‘undeliverable’. He also called on May once again to rule out ‘No Deal’, claiming that this outcome would violate her promise of no hard border in Ireland.
Many others agree with Corbyn that the government are in denial regarding the scope of the divide. ‘It’s like last week’s vote never happened’ tweeted MP Sarah Wollaston, one of the six Conservative MP’s to have publicly backed a People’s Vote.
It’s like last week’s vote never happened. Plan B is Plan A
— Sarah Wollaston MP (@sarahwollaston) 21 January 2019
So what happens next? A ‘neutral’ motion will be tabled by May on Tuesday 29th January. Once this is tabled, MPs will have the opportunity to seek more input by putting forth amendments. It is expected that a group of MPs led by Labour’s Yvette Cooper will table a bill that aims to suspend Article 50 if the government is unable to obtain parliamentary support for a deal by 26 February. This all pushes resolution further out into the year, and with less than 40 working days until Brexit day remaining, we face our nation being plunged into a level of uncertainty and chaos which is unprecedented in the 21st century.