Today represents the best, and possibly the last, chance for MPs to influence the course of Brexit and prevent a damaging no-deal departure from the EU. The result looks set to be an even deeper deadlock.
When Theresa May’s Brexit deal was put to the Commons two weeks ago, all its critics had to do was say no – and they did in huge numbers, on both sides of the House, inflicting a historic 230-vote defeat on the government.
Now they have to decide what should happen instead and it isn’t clear that any option can command a majority in the Commons and point a way out of the deadlock.
Two proposals have been attracting the most attention and support, and they come from opposite sides of the Brexit debate.
Labour MP Yvette Cooper has drawn cross-party backing from MPs of both a pro-EU persuasion, or who want to see a soft Brexit inside the single market and customs union like Conservative Nick Boles. It would clear the Commons schedule on 5 February to allow debate on a piece of legislation known as EU Withdrawal Bill No.3.
If passed, the bill would set a deadline of 26 February to get a Brexit deal through the Commons. If the government failed to meet that target, MPs would get a vote on extending Article 50 and delaying Brexit by up to nine months. Brexiteer critics claim the length of the delay is effectively blocking the UK’s departure from the EU, and significantly, while shadow chancellor John McDonnell said it was “highly likely” to get official approval from the Labour front bench, there are still doubts about whether Labour MPs will be whipped to vote for it. Another issue is that a nine-month delay would extend beyond European elections and the swearing-in of a new set of MEPs in July.
Even if the amendment passes, the bid to prevent no-deal through delay faces difficulty: while the UK can revoke Article 50 unilaterally, it needs unanimous agreement of the other 27 EU governments to extend it. Lithuanian president Dalia Grybauskaitė said last week that no-deal would be “better” than further delay, and EU sources have been widely quoted saying an extension won’t be agreed without clear indications it would lead to a deal – not more dithering.
The situation on the Brexiteer side is even more complicated. The amendment tabled by Conservative Andrew Murrison and the chairman of the powerful Tory backbench 1922 Committee, Sir Graham Brady, looked destined for failure yesterday because Brexiteers claimed it was too “vague”.
The amendment calls for the controversial “backstop” insurance policy guaranteeing the status quo along the Irish border “to be replaced with alternative arrangements to avoid a hard border”.
If passed, it would represent a direct challenge to the EU to either do what it says is impossible and re-open the Brexit withdrawal agreement, or at least attach a “codicil” to the document setting out that the backstop would only be temporary.
However, a number of MPs on the Brexiteer European Research Group have said they won’t back the amendment because it’s too vague and doesn’t come directly from government. The government has stepped in to try save the Brady amendment, but with the margins so tight in the Commons, even a few missing votes could mean defeat for either amendment.
Failure to pass any of the 14 amendments put forward by MPs – Commons Speaker John Bercow will decide how many are taken forward for vote early today – would throw the country into even deeper limbo.
The UK could be left with a take-it-or-leave-it choice on a Brexit deal that MPs have already overwhelmingly rejected, with a matter of weeks until a no-deal cliff edge.
l Paris Gourtsoyannis is The Scotsman’s Westminster Correspondent