Britain: Towards Brexit Plan B?

Manal Lotfy , Friday 25 Jan 2019

British Prime Minister Theresa May’s Plan B for leaving the European Union is Plan A with some new promises attached, writes Manal Lotfy in London

Brexit agreement
Critics doubt May can succeed in amending her current Brexit agreement (Photo: AFP)

You could be waiting for Godot if you are waiting for British Prime Minister Theresa May’s Plan B for Brexit.

There is no Plan B. And the developments of the last few days crystallise the limitations of the options for May’s government.

After MPs rejected her Brexit deal with the EU by 230 votes last week, May was forced to make a statement to parliament setting out her plans on how to proceed.

She came back on Monday with what was supposed to be the outlines of her Plan B. But there was no Plan B, only the same Plan A with a few more promises attached, including one to be more inclusive and to take a more “flexible” approach.

She set out six issues to address either in her Brexit deal or in the next phase of the negotiations. Among these was a commitment to give parliament more say in talks related to the UK’s future relationship with the EU. She also said that her government would seek to give the devolved nations of Wales and Scotland a bigger role in the second phase of the negotiations.

She promised to seek the views of Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), which keeps her minority Conservative Party government in power, and other parties on the proposed Irish “backstop” governing the UK’s border with the Republic of Ireland.

She said she would then “take the conclusions of these discussions back to the EU,” vowing to seek changes to the Irish backstop.

The backstop is the “insurance policy” in the withdrawal deal that is intended to ensure that in the case of no agreement on future relations between the UK and the EU there will be no return to a visible border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic after the UK leaves the EU.

May also said her government would scrap the £65 fee millions of EU citizens were going to have to pay to register their right to continue living in the UK after Brexit.

However, May rejected calls to rule out a “no-deal” Brexit and warned that another EU referendum in the UK could threaten “social cohesion”.

Sticking to her original red lines and Brexit plan as if nothing had happened last week despite the defeat of her plans in parliament, May was accused by leading Conservative Party rebels, opposition Labour Party MPs, and others of being in denial about the scale of the opposition to her Brexit deal.

With the clock ticking, a lack of alternatives from May, and a weak minority government, it seems inevitable that MPs will try to take over the Brexit process from the government.

Some MPs put forward plans to stop a no-deal Brexit ahead of a vote next week on May’s amended deal. Among the plans are an amendment from Labour MP Rachel Reeves aimed at preventing a no-deal Brexit by requiring the prime minister to seek an extension to the Article 50 deadline.

There is an amendment from Labour MP Hilary Benn asking MPs to take a non-binding vote on four options: reconsidering May’s deal; leaving the EU with no deal; seeking to renegotiate the deal or holding another referendum.

There is an amendment from Labour’s Yvette Cooper, with the backing of Remain Tory MPs, which directs the prime minister to seek a deadline extension if a Brexit deal is not agreed by 26 February. It says that if there is no deal in place before the end of February, the government must place a binding motion before parliament seeking an extension of Article 50 until the end of 2019.

And there is an amendment to give parliament more control over the Brexit process. Former attorney-general Dominic Grieve put forward his motion to allow backbenchers to table different Brexit motions for a full day’s debate on six separate days, 12 and 26 February, and 5, 12, 19 and 26 March, before the UK leaves the EU.

Grieve said the amendment aimed at facilitating a wider debate on Brexit options. It is similar to a plan for “indicative votes” floated by several cabinet ministers, such as Business Secretary Greg Clark and Education Secretary Damian Hinds.

Commons speaker John Bercow will choose which amendments are put to a vote. If any of them get through, it could be a game-changer in the Brexit process.

In the face of another deadline looming on 29 January for another crucial vote on the way forward, May said she would continue talking to the DUP and others who have concerns about the Irish backstop.

However, it is difficult to see how she will manage to convince the EU to re-open talks. The EU has stated that it will not re-open negotiations on the UK withdrawal agreement. But the DUP will not support the deal as it stands.

The only way it might change its mind is if the EU re-opens the talks to add conditions to the backstop that are legally binding. These conditions include adding a timetable or expiry date or allowing Britain to have the right to leave the backstop arrangement when it desires to do so.

Such changes may be difficult to achieve. May’s chief Brexit Adviser Olly Robbins has remarked that the idea of re-opening the withdrawal agreement is “for the birds”. His intervention reportedly came in a message sent to Finance Minister Philip Hammond during a cabinet conference call over the weekend.

Ministers were discussing May’s plans for overhauling the Irish backstop in order to win support from Tory Eurosceptics and the DUP. Hammond is said to have made clear that re-opening the Irish backstop terms could mean the EU’s demanding concessions on other parts of the agreement.

May misjudged the mood in parliament last week, and she may be making the same mistake again. Gambling that Tory MPs will be forced to support her plan no matter how bad it is to avoid the possibility of stopping Brexit was not enough to save her deal last week, and probably it will not be enough to save her deal next week either.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 24 January, 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Towards Brexit Plan B

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