In another dramatic day in British politics, British Prime Minister Theresa May decided to postpone a crucial vote in parliament on the UK’s EU withdrawal agreement, admitting that she would have lost the vote by a large margin had she continued with it.
In her justification for the delay, May said that she would return to EU member states to seek “further assurances” and seek ways to “empower” the British House of Commons regarding the deal.
Her reassurances fell on deaf ears. May’s relationship with parliament has broken down since the summer when she was told by many MPs that her deal would not get sufficient support. She carried on as usual, ignoring the warning signs.
The dismay in parliament was obvious for everyone to see this week, and speaker John Bercow hammered the government for cancelling the vote on the deal, calling the day’s proceedings “most unfortunate.”
He then launched an attack on the government for cancelling the “meaningful vote” on the Brexit deal without asking MPs, branding it as “deeply discourteous.”
“This whole proceeding has been extremely regrettable. I think that’s just manifest, it’s palpable, it’s incontrovertible. This is not the way the business of the House is ordinarily conducted. It’s a most unfortunate state of affairs.”
Bercow suggested he was on the side of MPs in wishing to make the government hold a vote, adding that “I have sought to do everything I can for nearly nine-and-a-half years, and will go on doing so, to support the House and backbenchers in particular within the House, and as necessary holding ministerial feet to the fire. But I have to operate within the powers that I have, not those that some members perhaps would like me to have.”
The disdain was clear, and one theatrical scene summed up the day’s events when Labour Party MP Lloyd Russell-Moyle grabbed the mace, a ceremonial object that represents the queen’s authority, brandishing it above his head.
Tory Party MPs shouted “disgrace” before Russell-Moyle handed the mace back to Commons officials. The message of the protest was clear, since May’s action pushes the parliament into irrelevance.
The anger was also obvious when Finance Minister Philip Hammond told Labour MP John McDonnell to vote for the Brexit deal on the table before Bercow interrupted him by saying that “it’s quite difficult to vote for something if there isn’t a vote.”
“May is in a state of denial. She should admit that her Brexit plan has failed. Wasting time touring some EU countries for cosmetic changes will not change the outcome of the vote. She will be defeated, so delaying the inevitable is irresponsible. She must face the facts as soon as possible,” one member of the Conservative Party told Al-Ahram Weekly.
May has started a frantic round of European diplomacy in a final attempt to salvage her Brexit deal and her premiership.
She met with Mark Rutte, the Dutch prime minister, in The Hague and with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin. She also met with Donald Tusk, the president of the European Council, and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker in Brussels to seek “further assurances” to ensure that the Northern Irish backstop, part of the Brexit deal, would never come into force.
May is hoping to secure an exchange of letters or side-declarations pledging that the backstop in the withdrawal agreement, which could keep the UK in an indefinite customs union with the EU, would be temporary and unlikely to come into force.
However, Downing Street admitted that the document might not be legally binding, meaning it was not clear that it would satisfy sceptical MPs amid intense pressure from rebel Tories and the Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party to ditch the backstop.
It warned that a rapid breakthrough was unlikely, and even before May’s meeting with Juncker her hopes for compromise were fading.
In a speech to the European Parliament on Tuesday, Juncker described Brexit as the “surprise guest” at this week’s EU summit.
“I’m surprised because we had reached an agreement on 25 November together with the government of the United Kingdom. Notwithstanding that, it would appear that there are problems right at the end of the road,” he said, adding that the backstop was essential to the agreement.
“We have a common determination to do everything to not be in the situation one day to use that backstop. But we have to prepare: it’s necessary for the entire coherence of what we have agreed with Britain, and it is necessary for Ireland. Ireland will never be left alone,” he said, adding on Twitter that the deal “could be clarified, but no room whatsoever for renegotiation”.
Legal advice to the British government from Attorney-General Geoffrey Cox indicates the UK may struggle to withdraw from the backstop without the EU’s agreement.
Under the deal agreed by May, the UK will automatically fall into a backstop customs union with the EU if a new trading relationship cannot be established during the transition period after leaving, currently set at 21 months.
Should this take place, Britain would struggle to sign comprehensive trade agreements with third countries and would still have to adhere to a significant proportion of EU regulation despite having a greatly reduced say over its content.
Hard Brexiters in London questioned what May could achieve in her European visits. Conservative MP Jacob Rees-Mogg said it was a “rotten and humiliating day” for the government, having earlier accused May of failing to govern because she did not “have the gumption” to put her deal before MPs.
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn responded to May’s statement by warning that the country was in “an extremely serious and unprecedented situation.” He argued it would be pointless to bring what was fundamentally the same deal back to the House, whether in a few days or next month.
Various smaller parties in the parliament, such as the Scottish National Party, the Liberal Democrats, the Welsh Plaid Cymru Party and the Greens, united to urge Corbyn to table a no-confidence motion in the government.
Lib Dem leader of Vince Cable told the BBC that Corbyn should table a motion of no confidence in the government this week. He and the leaders of three other opposition parties have signed a joint letter to Corbyn making this argument.
Cabinet sources voiced concern about May’s strategy, having cancelled the vote without the EU being signed up to anything. There is also concern over the timing of the vote amid growing fears that a no-deal Brexit could result.
Downing Street said the Brexit vote could be delayed until January, reducing the time available to pass the necessary legislation to complete the UK’s departure from the EU.
To ease the tensions with parliament, Number 10 said that May would bring her Brexit deal back to the Commons “before 21 January.”
A spokesman for the government said that May would observe the “spirit” of the EU Withdrawal Act, which requires the prime minister to make a statement to the Commons “before the end of January” if no agreement in principle has been reached with Brussels.
Last week, three of the biggest donors to the Leave Campaign told the TV station Sky News that they were dismayed by the progress of Brexit and that it would be better for Britain to remain in the European Union than sign up to May’s withdrawal agreement.
The trio, who gave more than £5 million to the Leave Campaign, offered scathing criticisms of the process and insisted that Brexit had been “hampered, ” “squandered” or “obstructed”.
Billionaire financier Peter Hargreaves said there would be “no Brexit” because politicians “are cowards.” Investment manager Jeremy Hosking, a shareholder in the Crystal Palace Football Club, said May’s deal would put the UK “in a straitjacket.”
Stuart Wheeler, founder of spreadbetting giant IG Index, said the UK had been reduced to “subservient begging.”
The situation is getting desperate. May is running out of time and her Plan B seems to be to run the clock down to the Brexit deadline hoping that MPs will sign any deal available rather than crash out of the EU without one.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 13 December, 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Another day in British politics