It’s been another turbulent week in the world of Brexit, with Northern Ireland and the long-awaited return of the EU (Withdrawal) Bill next week dominating the agenda. Today also marks one year from Theresa May’s ill-fated 2017 snap election. During a time of ceaseless Cabinet infighting and resignation threats many will be reflecting on what could have been if the Prime Minister had retained her previously dominant position.
Davis on the brink?
May faced a showdown with Brexit Secretary David Davis this week over the Government’s ‘final backstop’ plan to avoid a hard border in Northern Ireland. Davis was said to be “deeply unhappy” about the lack of a firm end date in the agreed text and rumours started to circulate that he could quit over it. However, this isn’t the first time Davis has threatened to walk; most recently in April, the Brexit Secretary said he was “ready to resign” if the Government pursued a “customs partnership” with the EU. He also made threats earlier in the year and the latter part of 2017; however he is yet to follow through on these threats. Luckily for May, following crunch meetings with Davis, the published plan now includes the expectation of an ‘end date’ of December 2021 which seems to have settled Davis for the time being – but it’s received a rather lukewarm reception in Brussels. The EU’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, has already poured cold water on the proposals. Whilst welcoming the publication, he questioned whether it was a “workable solution to avoid a hard border” implying that it only combats the issue of customs, rather than other problems such as freedom of movement for people. In addition, the European Parliament’s representative in the Brexit negotiations, Guy Verhofstadt, said it was “difficult” to see how the proposals would deliver a solution to avoid a hard border. Whilst a domestic consensus may have been secured for the moment, navigating a way to agreement with the European Commission will be an entirely new headache for the Prime Minister.
Johnson’s leaked recordings
If that wasn’t enough for May to contend with, a leaked recording from a private dinner also made its way into the public domain, where Boris Johnson made a number of unguarded remarks about Brexit, going as far as to suggest that Donald Trump could do a better job at handling the negotiations. At the dinner, which was for a group of Conservative activists with the pressure group Conservative Way Forward, the Foreign Secretary ridiculed fears over the border in Ireland and admitted that there “may be a meltdown” during the negotiation period. During the dinner, Johnson also accused the Treasury of being “basically the heart of Remain” and said they were driving the agenda to stay closer to Brussels longer term. But it wasn’t all bad news for the Prime Minister; Boris also said things would “be all right in the end”!
A second referendum after all?
Compounding the Prime Minister’s problems even further this week, a Foreign Office Minister has said there could be a second referendum on Britain’s exit from the EU after all. Boris Johnson’s deputy, Sir Alan Duncan, said that while a second referendum would not offer people the option of reversing the original decision to leave the EU, it would offer people the opportunity to vote on whether “they liked the exit deal or not”. Although Duncan tried to backtrack on his comments, Pro-EU Remainers have said “the floodgates are now well and truly open”. This marks another misstep on behalf of the Government, particularly as the Prime Minister stated at the end of 2017 that a second referendum would be a “betrayal”. However, if she plays her cards right, she may be able to take advantage of a second split in the Labour party. The likes of Chuka Umunna are supportive of the idea of a people’s vote on the final Brexit deal, but Labour Brexiteers have claimed that it would be “absurd” to hold a second referendum, highlighting that it would be “dishonest” as British voters made their views clear in 2016.
Upcoming EU (Withdrawal) Bill vote
Commentators have been gearing up for the highly-anticipated return of the EU Withdrawal Bill to the Commons next week. Being touted as ‘Super Tuesday’, it promises to be a defining moment for this Government and as part of the wider Brexit process. Speculation suggests that approximately 12 Conservative MPs are plotting to back an amendment that would push the UK into a soft “Norway-style” Brexit. Making matters worse for the Government, there are reportedly even more rebels that are waiting in the wings but not yet ready to go public.
Pro-Brexit Tories nevertheless seem fairly relaxed about the issue and are doubtful that the Government will be defeated. This confidence emerges from the fact that even if some Conservative MPs rebel, Labour has told its own MPs to abstain on the “Norway” amendment. Instead, they have been asked to back Keir Starmer’s “internal market” proposal, which is as close as Labour can get to single market membership without being in the EU. The language in Starmer’s new amendment talks of “shared institutions” with the EU and “full access to the internal market”, meaning it would deliver a new and close relationship with the EU without the UK actually being a member of the single market. While this new amendment is highly unlikely to gather much support from Tory rebels, Labour had to come up with a decision on how they would vote next week in a bid to keep both ardent Remainers and pro-Brexit MPs in the party happy.
When the Bill returns to the Commons on Tuesday, the Government will hope to fend off the amendments that have been sent back from the House of Lords; but with 15 amendments to vote on it is likely that the Government will lose some of them. Four Public Affairs will be live-tweeting, providing commentary and opinion on the major contributions during the debate as it occurs.