May evades Valentine’s Day massacre of Brexit

BY Finn McRedmond   /  12 February 2019

The Prime Minister has been given a little headroom this evening by the anti-no deal MPs in the  Cooper-Boles group. The MPs have announced that they will not push for the Valentines Day massacre of Brexit they had been expected to attempt on Thursday this week.

Labour’s Yvette Cooper and Tory MP Nick Boles are heading a cross-party group of MPs seeking to wrest control of the Brexit process from the government.

Instead of making this week the showdown, they have published their revised bill aimed at preventing no deal, or demanding the government seek an extension to Article 50, and say that May now has until the 26th of February to get a deal finalised and through the Commons avoiding no deal. If May has not cracked it by then, the MPs move to take back control with the help of Remainer cabinet ministers who are really, definitely, certainly, maybe, going to do something brave to help the anti-no deal forces.

No rush, everyone…

Earlier in the day, Theresa “nothing has changed” May made a statement on Brexit to MPs, again. While the substance was broadly the same as ever – give me just a little more time – there was evidence of concessionary tactics aimed at winning over two contrasting sets of MPs. Seeking any avenue to get her deal through parliament, she endeavoured to placate both the ERG and Labour backbenchers.

There is little those two groups have in common, naturally – so May embarked on a two-pronged approach. Fixing or tweaking the Irish border backstop when it comes to the ERG, and guaranteeing workers’ rights for the sake of Labour backbenchers.

On the backstop, May acknowledged last month’s vote that granted her a mandate to seek changes to the arrangement with the EU. MPs would support her deal, her argument goes, so long as concessions on the backstop are obtained. The government is pursuing three options to avoid the backstop, she says: Alternative technological solutions, a legally binding time limit, or a unilateral exit clause.

But there is a minor hitch. The EU has and continues to affirm that the withdrawal agreement, in which the backstop is encoded, is not up for renegotiation. May pointed out today that both the EU and the UK are insistent in not wanting to ever have to resort to the backstop, and in that case, it’s reasonable to seek “legally binding changes to this effect.”

Unfortunately for May’s endeavour to settle the concerns of the ERG, this doesn’t exactly tally with what the Speaker of the House Andrea Leadsom said this morning. The government is not looking to alter the withdrawal agreement as a resolution to the impasse, Leadsome said – instead the priority is ensuring the UK will not be held in a backstop permanently, no matter how that may be achieved.

The mixed messages may not be reassuring. In the chamber in response to Boris Johnson, May said any changes made to the backstop must have the same legal status as the withdrawal agreement. She pointed out that the most obvious way to achieve that would be by changing the withdrawal agreement, which the EU refuse to do, of course.

But May is clearly trying to prove to the ERG that all hope is not lost. There are alternative courses to be pursued… maybe.

When it comes to Labour, May is focussed on workers’ rights. After declaring that she will consider legislation that will allow parliament to vote to match any EU changes to workers’ rights post Brexit, she pointed out that the UK need not follow Brussels. The government (Labour and Tories alike) has frequently surpassed the EU when it comes to protecting employment rights.

May rattled through both party’s strong track record on workers’ rights. Her display of goodwill was not received in the same faith however, as Labour benches jeered when she essentially claimed both parties are equal in their commitment to protecting such rights.

So will this be enough to win over those votes she desperately needs? Unlikely. Stephen Bush of the New Statesman has crunched the numbers, and his findings look bleak. Even if her strategy were to work, and she managed to convince every convince-able Labour MP, May would still be 56 votes short of being able to pass her deal “as it stands.” She needs to move a lot more Tory votes.

So, the ERG won’t have left the session feeling heartened by her progress on the backstop, and even if she is successful when it comes to Labour she will still come up short. As ever, May is trying, but it is getting late. Despite her beseeching plea to parliament to “hold your nerve” as the clock ticks down to 29 March, no deal looks an increasingly likely outcome unless the Cooper-Boles group can get the numbers together.


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