AFTER WINNING a few last-minute changes to her Brexit deal in a dramatic dash to Strasbourg last night, Theresa May faces another series of difficult votes in Parliament. The votes will begin this evening with a second go at getting MPs to approve the draft exit deal that they rejected by the huge majority of 230 votes in January.
Since then government ministers, including Geoffrey Cox, the attorney-general, have been trying to amend the deal to make it more palatable to Parliament. Their aim was to create a legally binding unilateral exit mechanism for Britain from the “Irish backstop”, an insurance policy designed to avoid a hard border in Ireland by keeping the United Kingdom in a customs union with the EU. Until last night the European Union was refusing to give ground, arguing that to do so would undermine the purpose of the backstop.
The new deal agreed by Mrs May and Jean-Claude Juncker, the European Commission president, offers more legal undertakings that the EU regards the backstop as undesirable and temporary, and will do its utmost to agree an alternative way of avoiding a hard border in Ireland. It spells out in more detail the conditions under which the UK could seek to exit the backstop if it were triggered, including the terms of an arbitration mechanism if the two sides disagree. And it is accompanied by a unilateral declaration by the British government about how it might set the process of exit in motion.
The changes fall short of what many Brexit hardliners wanted. But they may be enough to win over many of those who opposed the deal in January and have since had second thoughts. They will find it especially easy to fall in line if Mr Cox says they materially reduce the risk of the UK being stuck in the backstop. Much will turn on the position of the Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party, which voted against the deal last time. If they back the plan, many Tory MPs are likely to follow suit. Yet the huge scale of the defeat last time means that, even if quite a few MPs change sides, it is unlikely that the deal will go through.
If it fails again, the prime minister has promised to let MPs vote tomorrow on whether to accept a no-deal Brexit instead. They are likely to reject this option too. If they do, they will then vote by Thursday on whether to ask Mrs May to request an extension of the March 29th deadline. The EU would probably agree to a short extension, although some countries may ask what exactly it would be for. EU leaders are saying clearly that no further concessions on the terms of the deal will be made.
Much will depend on the margin of defeat tonight. If it is well below 100, there will be hope that a few more weeks of debate, and further pressure on Brexit-backing MPs who are fretful that delay could frustrate their goal altogether, may allow Mrs May to get the deal through on a third or fourth attempt. But if the defeat is another heavy one, there will be doubts about her ability to get anything at all through Parliament. That could point to a rethink of the entire shape of the deal, perhaps towards a softer Brexit, for instance keeping Britain in a permanent customs union with the EU. Any such arrangement might be supplemented by a plan to maintain close alignment with the EU’s single market.
Another possible outcome of a second big defeat in Parliament and a firm rejection of no deal would be to encourage demands for a second referendum. A minority of MPs from all parties have long called for such a “People’s Vote”, and the Labour opposition leader, Jeremy Corbyn, recently gave his conditional support to the idea. Although there does not seem to be parliamentary majority for it, there may be one for a variant: to endorse Mrs May’s deal if it is put to a referendum for final approval, with staying in the EU as the other option.
Critics of Mrs May on both sides of the Brexit debate are grumbling about the uncertainties. A growing number of Tories are suggesting she should quit as prime minister. Meanwhile polls suggest that many voters just want the whole business to be over.