Today, the Government has postponed Parliament’s meaningful vote to accept or reject the UK-EU Withdrawal Agreement, negotiated by the Prime Minister over the past several months. The Agreement is not a deal on the future trading relationship between the UK and the EU, but merely an outline on the working relationship during the interim period up to 2020, during which time the future trading agreement can be negotiated.
The Government was not thought to have the parliamentary numbers to pass the deal, which has been opposed by differing groups for a number of reasons. Leave supporters believe that opposing the deal will lead to a preferential opportunity to reach a Free Trade Agreement with no transition or no deal. Remain supporters believe that opposing the deal will result in either remaining in the EU outright, or returning the deal to the British people to vote in a prospective second referendum.
Response to the Agreement
The deal has been met with near-unanimous opposition from both Leave and Remain supporters, particularly over the precarious position of the UK deferring to another state, without any influence in the decision making under the backstop. Recent polling conducted Lord Ashcroft Polls’ found that 69 per cent of the general population felt that the Prime Minister’s deal failed to honour the Brexit vote, a view consistently held by both Labour and Conservative voters, as well as those who supported Leave and Remain. Moreover, ComRes polling found that, after removing ‘don’t knows’, 63 per cent of respondents believed MPs should vote against the Agreement.
The Labour Party has presented an intentionally-vague position over Brexit, designed to avoid alienating their supporters, who are as deeply conflicted as the Conservatives. Whilst the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs backed Remain, the Party’s voter-base is split between Brexit backing post-industrial communities in the North and Midlands region, juxtaposed with predominantly university-educated, metropolitan and suburban professional’s, who backed Remain. Labour have come out against the Agreement and declared their intention to vote down any deal, in a bid to trigger a general election and propel them into Government.
The European Research Group (ERG) have vehemently condemned the deal. Their membership (between 40-60 MPs), have been steadily writing letters of no confidence to trigger a leadership contest once 48 MPs letters have been submitted. The ERG had appeared to have stalled on their push for a no confidence vote, opting instead to vote the deal down when it is eventually put to Parliament. However, they may, out of frustration towards the Prime Minister’s delaying of the inevitable vote, increase the submission of no confidence letters over the coming days.
Conversely, Remain supporters have increasingly turned to the proposal of a second referendum vote on the deal, being championed by the Liberal Democrats, though also finding cross-party support. However, the main sticking point for any second vote would be the nature of the question put to the British people, being either a three way: Remain, deal, or no-deal; or a binary “deal or no-deal” vote.
As legally enshrined in the EU (Withdrawal) Bill, 29th March 2019 will be the date of UK departure from the EU. If the Withdrawal Agreement is voted against and an eligible alternative is not passed into law by that date, which is unlikely given the present time frame, then no deal is the likely outcome.
Defeat in the meaningful vote would not directly result in a confidence vote in the Government under the provisions of the Fixed-term Parliament Act 2011. However, if this did come to pass, the Opposition would have two weeks to form a minority government, though given its near guaranteed inability to pass legislation, which will be voted against by Conservative and Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) MPs, this would result in a General Election. Moreover, the DUP have also outlined that they would continue to support the Government in the event of a confidence motion, provided the Withdrawal Agreement was rejected.
Though a growing number of MPs have come out in favour of supporting a second referendum, including those Ministers who resigned from the Government, there is no parliamentary majority for another referendum on either the Withdrawal Agreement or the UK remaining inside the European Union. This is further echoed nationally, where a recent ComRes poll found a second referendum was opposed by 50 per cent of the general public and supported by 40 per cent. Even if there was unanimous support for a referendum, it would require legislation to be created, debated and passed through Parliament, just as occurred for the 2016 EU Referendum. In this instance, there is simply insufficient time for this to occur, prior to 29th March 2019.
Should the Prime Minister secure the future support for her Withdrawal Agreement, the final condition of Parliamentary approval is an Act of Parliament to legislate for it. However, given the present parliamentary arithmetic, the Prime Minister is unlikely to secure support for the deal without significant amendments to the Agreement, which the EU have already reiterated they are not prepared to make.