On Tuesday evening, the House of Commons refused for the second time to endorse Prime Minister Theresa May’s Brexit deal. Instead, two amendments were passed. The first rejected a no-deal outcome – or, rather, criticised that possibility, as it is only a non-binding amendment. The second asked the prime minister to seek ‘alternative arrangements’ to the controversial backstop that the government hopes will prevent the return to a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.
The European Union is tremendously unlikely to accommodate requests for alternatives or a legally-binding deadline for the backstop. As European Council President Donald Tusk has said, ‘The backstop is part of the withdrawal agreement, and the withdrawal agreement is not open for renegotiation.’ But if May cannot secure any concessions, her parliamentary majority will crumble. Both the Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party, which gave May a working majority after the June 2017 general election, and hard-core Conservative Brexiteers fear the backstop will be used to keep Britain inside the European customs union indefinitely.
In the probable case of no meaningful concessions being agreed, May is back to square one. This would leave the prime minister with a single option when she meets parliament on 13 February to report on the negotiations.
She must stand firm on her deal – amended or not – as the only workable outcome and push the DUP and Conservative Brexiteers against the wall, shifting responsibility for a catastrophic and unpredictable outcome onto them. This strategy offers the only chance of leaving the EU in relatively good shape.
Anything else hands over the initiative to parliament, with various groups forming ‘unholy’ alliances in a chaotic game. Majorities can be formed to block proposals, but there is no consensus for an alternative solution; the majority against a no-deal outcome cannot be turned into a majority for something else. There could be a majority for extending Article 50, giving more time to negotiate, which can be voted on at the last moment. This, however, would just kick the can down the road.
The default outcome is a no-deal exit on 29 March. If that is to be avoided, May must force the hard-core Brexiteers to join the overwhelming majority of Conservative members of parliament. However, Conservative grandees and the prime minister are not willing to run the risk of splitting the party, which allows the Brexiteers to dictate proceedings. Neither the EU nor opposition Labour party (itself divided) can rescue May from the rebels. If she cannot get her own MPs to vote for her deal, any other outcome is blocked.
The prime minister has been severely weakened and humiliated. Her deal has been rejected – twice – because she is not in control of her party.
What has happened in the House of Commons over the last two weeks is symptomatic of the deplorable statecraft that arose in 2012 when former Prime Minister David Cameron pledged a referendum on EU membership. British politicians are fighting among themselves, not paying attention to those outside Britain with whom they should negotiate.
Joergen Oerstroem Moeller is Associate Research Fellow, ISEAS Yusof Ishak Institute, and a former State Secretary at the Danish foreign ministry.