Along with Parliament, the Vote on the Withdrawal Agreement returns to Parliament this week. But what is it, and what has changed? Jack Simpson explains.
Last month, Parliament was due to vote on the 585-page text that set out how the UK would leave the European Union. However, staring a monumental defeat in the face, the Prime Minister, Theresa May, announced she had heard the “clear concerns” from the house, and would delay the vote in an attempt to get more assurances from Europe.
The Withdrawal Agreement proposes that the UK will leave the European Union on March 29th, and enter a two year "transition period". Transition will mean the UK will leave all the formal agencies and institutions, but remain in the Customs Union and effectively the Single Market, giving business a grace period to prepare for the actual future trade deal (For a more in depth look, click here).
Unfortunately, the Prime Minister has failed to bring back any notable changes. Consider she has been negotiating this Withdrawal Agreement for two years, it was always an uphill task to get anything substantial form the EU in two weeks.
The Withdrawal Agreement will now return to Parliament on the 9th January to be debated on, with the vote taking place on Tuesday January 15th. Although, only a week into the New Year, the Government has already been dealt a blow, as the Irish DUP party, who prop up the Conservative minority, have declared they will not support the Agreement.
Their criticism stems from the Irish Backstop. This is the protocol to legally avoid a hard Irish border, even if trading negotiations between the UK & EU fail. It proposes to keep the UK in a European customs territory, with Northern Ireland conforming more to EU, than UK regulations. The DUP are pretty much a single issue party of “Don’t split Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK”, so eroding their ties with London is a big no.
On top of this, the Brexiters of the Conservative Party saw the Backstop as a European trap. By keeping the UK in a non-time limited (as it would have to be) Customs territory business would largely be able to continue trading as normal, but, politically, the UK would become a rule taker, be unable to strike its own trade deals and would not be a “true Brexit”. This wing has tentatively come out in opposition of the Agreement on its return.
However, while the substance of the Agreement hasn’t changed, the context has. We are now 80 (80!) days away from the Brexit date, March 29th, and the cynics amongst would believe that the Prime Minister tactically delayed the vote to force a new vote on “May’s Deal” or “No Deal”. This will be May’s battle for the middle ground, trying to attract moderates from all Party’s to back the Agreement. However, the ECJ’s ruling that Brexit can be effectively suspended solely by the UK could undermine this strategy.
Whether this is true or not, it does appear that the Vote largely depends on the Labour Party. Prior to the Vote's delay, the Labour Party was in complete opposition to the Agreement, with MPs calling for a new deal, general election or a second referendum. They claim that Brexit, or at least a Conservative one, will leave their constituents poorer and business globally weaker, therefore a new route must be found to manage the impasses. But over the Christmas period Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, has called on the Prime Minister to give Labour a “deal they can back”.
Despite recent polls suggesting Labour member support for a Second Referendum, Corbyn has refused to back the policy, and plans to assess the options after the Vote. This might be a shrewd move, or it might deter rebels that favour a Second Referendum, without concrete assurances, from backing Labour’s stance and voting against the Agreement.
While I will refrain from predicting which way the vote will go (not that I’m ever right), it will certainly be a messy start to 2019 for Parliament, who will be looking to use the next week and a half to extinguish flames and twist arms this way and that. However, at least by having the vote, the gruelling Brexit process will move on, one way or another...