The view from Westminster
Meetings, Plan Bs, and the future of no-deal
Since successfully opposing the motion of no confidence tabled by Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn by 325 votes to 306. UK Prime Minister Theresa May immediately offered to hold talks with opposition party leaders. Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn has so far refused to do so unless May rules out a no-deal.
Most see the talks as a successful tactical ploy. By waiting to make the offer until after winning the confidence vote, she avoided any significant backlash from her own MPs and temporarily put the focus on Corbyn. He is now under increasing pressure to either engage in talks or back a second referendum.
Despite this week’s developments, May is not safe from future confidence votes. The margin of her victory shows that she would have lost if it had not been for DUP support. This suggests that if a Brexit deal could be found which commanded majority support in Parliament but not that of the DUP, she would be at the mercy of Labour. If the DUP chose to respond by tabling their own no confidence motion, the question for Labour MPs would be whether to back a deal or help bring down the government.
Taking no-deal off the table?
Further details have emerged on the Bill tabled by Conservative MP Nick Boles which the Chancellor suggested to business leaders would take no deal off the table. First, there are numerous reports of Cabinet splits over the Bill, and it is difficult to see how it could pass without at least tacit support. Second, the Bill’s present drafting does not state categorically that no deal will automatically be taken off the table if Parliament cannot reach an agreement. Instead, the drafting suggests that the Bill would merely compel the Government to extend Article 50 in the absence of an agreed Brexit deal. However, the EU has continued to indicate that they will not grant an extension to Article 50 without a clear route forward. Third, Select Committee Chairs in the UK Parliament have reportedly met and agreed to oppose this element of the Bill.
These developments continue to show that it is difficult for Parliament itself to stop a no deal outcome. Although there is a clear parliamentary majority against no deal, it is still unclear how MPs will be able to force the Government’s hand to stop the UK automatically leaving the EU on 29 March without a deal. Furthermore, the Prime Minister continues to see no deal as a key lever to help her win over more MPs to a deal or if there are further negotiations with the EU.
A consensus is starting to build that if May is to get any deal through, changes will have to be focussed on the non-binding political declaration which sets out the negotiated ambitions for the UK’s future relationship with the EU. May does not seem to think there is scope or time to substantially change the legally binding Withdrawal Agreement, but the Cabinet remains split as to how to proceed.
The next significant parliamentary event will take place on Monday when the Government will table a motion setting out their next steps - this will be voted on by MPs on 29 January. However, as things stand, it is still unclear if any plan or amendment will be able to command a majority in the House of Commons.
The view from jsk.berlin: our affiliate in Germany
Reactions from the Bundestag
Two days after the Withdrawal Agreement’s defeat in London, Berlin’s parliamentarians debated a national Brexit Transition Act (Brexit-Übergangsgesetz), a bill fully dependent on there being a soft Brexit. Needless to say, the timing could have been better. Still, it gave the speakers an opportunity to air their unadulterated thoughts on Tuesday’s vote and feelings towards the Brexit-friendly Alternative for Germany (AfD), albeit in front of a mostly empty plenary.
A few highlights from the debate (quotes have been translated from the German by jsk.berlin):
“We still don’t know what the British really want. […] An exit from Brexit is pure speculation as the British government has always ruled out this option.” – Heiko Maas, MP and Minister of Foreign Affairs (SPD).
“You can terminate all contracts, including a marriage”, said MP Martin Hebner from the AfD (Alternative for Germany) in his speech. “We are currently going through a very uncomfortable, downright dirty divorce.”
Dr. Diether Dehm from the Left Party (die LINKE) heaped blame for Brexit on the policies of previous UK governments. “London became a mecca for stock market freeloaders and real estate speculators.” Shifting his gaze towards the previous speaker, “As a "Dexit" is promoted during the AfD party convention, I can only advise your voters to take a look at England: only the dumbest calves choose their own slaughterhouse.”
Alexander Graf Lambsdorff (FDP) reminded his colleagues that the bill being debated is written as if the House of Commons had approved the deal on Tuesday. “It is completely obsolete. We are voting on a bill that will never enter into force!” he exclaimed.
An MP from the Greens, Franziska Brantner, had a clear message for London: “I expect Prime Minister May, the head of a Conservative government, to take a hard Brexit off the table. […] The sword of Damocles has to be taken down.“ On a potentially renegotiated agreement: “What is not possible is to take the current agreement and loosen it even further with more rights for the British, fewer duties for the British and fewer rights for European citizens and companies as today. That will not do.“
Florian Hahn of the Bavarian CSU attacked the strongly Eurosceptic AfD: “Germany has a Brexit Party, the AfD,” and addressed the parliamentary group directly, “why are you running [for the EU Parliament] at all if you want to abolish [it]?”
Lest we lose all hope, there was at least one optimist in the room: Detlef Seif from the CDU. “There isn’t a majority for a hard Brexit – neither in the European Union nor in Great Britain. […] It must be possible to stop an ‘accidental’ hard Brexit. […] Maybe there is another contingency plan that would work just as well as [as the agreement rejected on Tuesday]. The EU has delivered, now the British need to tell us what they want.”
The Brexit Transition Act was adopted with the votes of the CDU/CSU, SPD, the Greens and the FDP and the Left Party.
The jsk.berlin view:
Berlin still wants to prevent a hard Brexit (or if possible, any Brexit) and - even if they don’t dare say it out loud - would be willing to make a lot of concessions to London at this point, but considering the volatile situation in London right now, this can’t yet be the official line. All are being careful not to send the wrong signals.
Dates for your diary
21 January 2019 - Theresa May to present "Plan B" to Parliament
29 January 2019 - MPs in Westminster vote on Theresa May's "Plan B"
29 March 2019 - UK expected to leave EU
31 December 2020 - Expected end of transition
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