Brexit votes: No game-changers today

Chris Scicluna

There were no major game-changers from this evening’s seven Brexit votes in the House of Commons, which concluded a little while ago. May lives to fight (and negotiate) another day. All key Brexit scenarios remain feasible, including an eventual deal, an Article 50 extension, or a no-deal Brexit. And MPs will have to come back in a fortnight's time to take stock and vote all over again.

In particular, as a sufficient number of Conservative and DUP MPs united with a number of Labour rebels to back an amendment tabled by Tory MP Sir Graham Brady, Theresa May received a notional mandate from a majority of MPs (by 16 votes) to attempt a renegotiation of the Brexit deal which she herself reached with the EU late last year but was rejected earlier this month. Specifically, May will seek legally binding ‘alternative arrangements’ to avoid a hard border in Ireland in place of the existing ‘backstop’ before returning for a further Parliamentary statement and votes on the way forward on 13-14 February.

At face value, the vote on the Brady amendment would imply that a majority of MPs exists for a form of Brexit that is not a million miles from the deal that May negotiated last year. However, May failed to give an indication as to what precise ‘alternative arrangements’ she might actually propose to the EU27. And crucially, that form of Brexit might well prove undeliverable – the EU has long made clear that it has no intention to renegotiate or agree to any alternative to the backstop, or indeed anything else in the Withdrawal Agreement.

Reportedly, Commission President Juncker reemphasised that to May in a phone call earlier today. And a spokesperson for EU President Tusk reiterated it shortly after the vote.

Tusk’s spokesperson did, however, repeat that the EU would be prepared to revisit the Political Declaration on the future relationship (i.e. on matters related to the customs union and single market), and also stated that – should the UK request it – the EU would stand ready to consider an extension of the article 50 deadline (albeit ‘taking into account the reasons for and duration of [it]).

Admittedly, in other votes this evening, MPs rejected amendments that would have demanded that May seek an extension of the Article 50 deadline if no agreement had been endorsed by late February, or would have allowed MPs to take control of the Parliamentary agenda to steer Brexit policy more actively. The announcement of those votes served to weaken Sterling by almost 1 cent against the dollar.

Nevertheless, MPs did back an amendment (tabled by the Conservative MP Spelman and Labour MP Dromey) to reject the notion that the UK might leave the EU without a deal – something that would of course be consistent with a range scenarios: the agreement of a deal (including a variant of May’s deal), an extension of the Article 50 deadline, or indeed revocation of the Article 50 notice. That amendment was non-binding on the Government. But should May fail to secure significant concessions from the EU on the backstop over the coming couple of weeks, the majority in favour of the Spelman/Dromey amendment suggests that a majority of MPs might, on 14 February, crystallise in favour of demanding an extension to the Article 50 deadline and also taking new action to take greater control from the Government of the Brexit process.

Meanwhile, after the announcement of the results of this evening’s votes, May stated that she would advance work in Government on how to strengthen assurances on workers’ rights after Brexit, something that might eventually help to secure further support or abstentions from certain Labour MPs in future votes. And, Labour leader Corbyn finally agreed to hold further discussion with May on the possible way forward on Brexit.

So, where does this leave us? Not a great deal further forward. Our base-case scenario remains that the Article 50 deadline will be extended to avoid a no-deal Brexit on 29 March. But whether that proves to be a short-term technical extension (say of three months) to facilitate the adoption of legislation to implement a version of May’s deal (on balance, probably just about most likely, albeit probably not with substantive changes to the backstop), or a longer-lasting extension (say of nine months) to facilitate consideration of alternative ways forward, remains to be seen. 

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