This article is the second part of a two-part series focused on UK politics. The first focuses on the Independent Group – the centrist rebellion – while the second takes an in-depth look at the latest and dramatic Brexit developments. If you haven’t read the first part, you can find it at this link:
The biggest problem about writing about Brexit is that if you are not writing for a daily publisher, then everything you write becomes obsolete – sometimes even on the same day you wrote it. I have written and rewritten huge swathes of this and have decided that instead of constantly deleting my work, I shall try and give a running commentary/summary of the last few weeks in the run up to Brexit – if it ever happens.
The Brexit deadline at this point was two weeks away. On the 29th March, the UK was crashing out of the European Union, with parliament having overwhelmingly rejected Theresa May’s exit deal in the biggest defeat in Commons history. This article will start from Prime Minister May’s second attempt at passing her deal through parliament through the so called meaningful vote.
Brexit on the other hand continues to plague the UK. Theresa May’s second meaningful vote on her deal took place on Tuesday 12th March, mere weeks before the Article 50 deadline (and self-imposed legislation that forces the Brexit deadline). The first vote resulted in her suffering the biggest parliamentary loss in modern history, losing by 230 votes. The second vote took place with an 11th hour helping hand from the EU by offering legal guarantees that the Irish backstop will not be a permanent fixture. In other words, that the EU will not hold the UK in a customs union indefinitely, with December 2020 being the proposed date to come up with more ‘suitable’ arrangements regarding one the most contentious issues in the whole debacle. Yet mere hours before the vote, the Attorney General Geoffrey Cox published his legal advice on the new legal documents attained the night before in May’s last-minute haggling. It read very ominously for the government, especially the final paragraph:
“However, the legal risk remains unchanged that if through no such demonstrable failure of either party, but simply because of intractable differences, that situation does arise, the United Kingdom would have, at least while the fundamental circumstances remained the same, no internationally lawful means of exiting the Protocol’s arrangements, save by agreement.”
With these legal guarantees and the advice of the Attorney general, who shot down May’s last second attempt to buy votes, MPs cast their votes. The result? Another crushing defeat for May, who was not able to get the support of the ERG, the DUP or Labour, losing with a majority of 149 votes, albeit an improvement on the 230 from the first meaningful vote. The defeat sent Westminster into absolute chaos. The House of Commons started voting on a slew of legislation in what has been for political observers and common citizens alike an extraordinary three days in parliament. The alarm bells are now blaring at full and a crisis mode seems to have become almost official. To try and show just how confusing the situation has become here is a list of some of the most important legislation and amendments that have been voted on and what that means for Brexit.
2nd Meaningful Vote on May’s Brexit deal: Theresa reportedly started Wednesday with a cabinet meeting, where she told them ‘Today is the day.’ If she can get her vote to pass, they will have finally got to the peak of the mountain. The night before, she had secured some help from the EU, already exasperated at the monumental problems that seemingly keep growing from the island nation, once a pillar of the institution. Following the standard Wednesday Prime Minister Questions came the all-important testimony from her solicitor general. He had previously released advice showing that in his eyes, legally nothing had changed. The testimony sank any chances of the deal winning. The mood quickly changed from maybe just maybe getting the deal through to if we can keep defeat under 50, we can get a third vote in. For the next gruelling 6-7 hours, debate raged on, accusations flied and May – battered, bruised, beaten but always resilient – fought back. Yet, in all of this it was becoming increasingly obvious. Defeat was on the cards and it was going to be more than 50. The result came. Chaos ensued. Beaten by 149. For the first time May, a woman who despite all her faults has admirable an never say die attitude and always seems to climb out of even the deepest trenches, looked utterly defeated. Exhausted. She has given her everything for this deal and for the UK. I have always been an advocate of hers. She may not have the charisma or personality of a leader, but she does know how to make tough calls in high pressure jobs. Perhaps there is no more high-pressure job than that of a PM leading the most divided country and parliament into a new world she did not want and knows will be hugely damaging. It was her job to limit the damage as much as possible. Considering her situation, I believe the deal is the best she could have managed. The truth is, Article 50 should never have been triggered until after the UK had everything in place. In a world of instant gratification and where long-term thinking is tossed to the side, that simply wasn’t possible. Calls for her resignation grow louder. Corbyn, perhaps surprisingly, did not call a vote of no confidence but the feeling that a general election is around the corner is very strong.
3rd Meaningful vote: When the second vote failed, the deal looked dead in the water. In fact, it was dead in the water. That in itself speaks loudly and clearly about the state of affairs at Westminster, that just 24 hours later, the deal had breathed life again. Already, it is looking increasingly likely that a third attempt at passing May’s deal will take place. The two defeats she has faced so far have been some of the heaviest in modern parliamentary history. Nonetheless, there are signs some of the ERG are shifting and the DUP is working to find a solution that would allow them to vote for the deal. The numbers are slowly creeping in May’s favour but they are nowhere near high enough to pass the vote. However, any attempt to get the legislation on the floor will have to go through House speaker John Bercow.
No Brexit: Probably the most ludicrous show that the House of Commons has seen in recent time, the vote surrounding no Brexit had everything. The government whipped both for and against the legislation when an amendment that was tabled changed the wording. Four of May’s cabinet rebelled alongside government ministers, backbenchers and another chunk choosing to abstain. It prompted the 15th resignation of a minister due to Brexit and showed that parliament’s will was to NOT leave the EU without a deal. However, the vote was non-binding and legally the default position of the UK is that they are going to leave the EU on the 29th March.
Corbyn’s amendment: The Labour leader set out a motion that rejects May’s deal, rejects no deal, seeks an extension of Article 50 to avoid a no-deal and to find time for a different parliamentary solution. The motion failed by 16 votes, providing brief reprieve for the government
Delays: There have been several attempts at setting new deadlines for Brexit beyond the 29th March. These have been based around pushing for a technical extension of Article 50 to around May/June. While all these failed, a vote extending Article 50 beyond 29th March passed with a huge majority of 210. The motion states that if MPs approve the deal by 20th March (just 6 days from when the vote took place), that they will seek an extension until 30th June. If this does not happen, they will seek a far longer extension to Article 50. Any extension of Article 50 will have to be approved by the EU, who are scratching their heads at what exactly the UK wants.
Parliamentary control: Winning by just two votes, the government breathed a sigh of relief as the amendment to give parliament control over the Brexit process was, just barely, shut down
Second Referendum: A second referendum has been shut down. Here it was Labour’s turn to show their disunity, as Corbyn whipped for his party to abstain from voting. That didn’t stop 25 MPs voting in favour and 18 against. A Labour frontbencher has also resigned in regard to the vote. The loss on the second referendum doesn’t rule it out completely but rather is a rejection of the motion right now.
As the above shows, it has been a chaotic few days in Westminster. Nonetheless, the majority of the votes that took place are non-binding but show both the will of parliament and the deep divisions that are splitting almost everyone on Brexit issues. Furthermore, while a third vote on May’s deal is set to take place, she still has to convince around 70 conservatives to get on board and hope for support from Labour MPS. The biggest takeaway is that no matter how much the UK legislate, if they do not agree to May’s deal or suspend Article 50, they are heading for a no deal Brexit on the 29th March. Parliament is going to seek extensions from the EU but there are no guarantees they will be granted it. There are competing voices in Europe who both sympathise with May’s position and don’t want the UK to leave but equally have closed the door on further negotiating until the UK makes it clear what they will do with an extension. The situation, which has been chaotic for years now, has kicked into high gear apocalyptic mess. There is no consensus except that there is a need for more time and May’s position in government is almost surely over. She will almost certainly carry on for a few more weeks in the run up to 29th March but once the situation becomes clearer (as much as it can in these political times), it is likely that she will resign or be forced out. Further complicating the issue is the European Parliament elections that are taking place in May later this year. If the UK remains in the EU beyond May, the question arises whether the UK should take part in the elections. This will also be weighing heavily on the minds of the leaders of the EU27 when they decide if they will give the UK an extension and for how long. If the decision is not unanimous then the UK will be in a position with barely a week to decide whether to suspend Article 50 or leave without a deal. It is likely that by the time this is published, new developments will have arisen that will once more change the direction of Brexit. The only certainty in any of this is that nobody really knows what’s going to happen next. So next time someone asks me what’s happening with Brexit and if the new situation has changed, I will have a simple answer. Nothing’s changed and chaos reigns.
29th March 2019 – Brexit Day: What on earth is going on?
I remember writing the first part of this article two weeks ago, thinking that Westminster has truly descended into chaos and that nothing will get solved but at least it couldn’t get that much worse – in terms of the organisational chaos and complete lack of any clarity on any issue. Of course, this was a rather naïve point of view and somehow Westminster has only descended further into the pits of despair for any onlooker (and I should think many MPS). Don’t believe me? Here’s a quick summary of what has happened since I last wrote:
Theresa May flew to Brussels last week where she got a slight concession; Brexit was being moved to mid-may, if her deal was agreed upon by parliament before the original Brexit date (29th March) and 12th April if it was not. Parliament took control of the Brexit procedure from the government, the first time that the government has lost control of the agenda in modern history. They then voted on 8 different indicative votes to show what the will of the Commons was. All 8 options were rejected. The speaker John Bercow has refused to let the government propose a third meaningful vote unless there is significant change, evoking a rule that had not been used for nearly 100 years. Meanwhile Theresa May has said that she WILL resign IF parliament backs her deal in a third meaningful vote. Bercow again told the government he would not allow a vote on it unless there were significant changes and now today, the government is set to vote upon part of May’s deal and what is seen as one final hail Mary by May to try and secure her deal. People have not been sitting idly either, with a protest march in London gathering 1 million people and an online petition calling for revoking Article 50, gathering over 6 million signatures. The worst part of all this: this was the simple version of the last two weeks. I will now try to briefly address each issue and hope that in the few hours I spent writing this section that parliament does not once more turn everything on its head.
Bercow’s and May’s deal: Speaker John Bercow has become a bit of a celebrity figure internationally for his long discourses lecturing MPs and his eloquent use of the English language. He has also become a figure of ‘oppression’ for extreme Brexiteers, who see him as pushing a Remainer agenda on a position that is meant to be neutral. This is not remotely true, as while it is certainly clear he enjoys the limelight a bit more than other predecessors, it is also fundamentally clear he takes his role very seriously and has the interests of MPs and the democratic institutions at heart. Bercow has been clamping down on the government’s attempts to continuously push the same agenda, while incurring big defeats. He has not allowed May’s deal to return for a third time without significant change, calling upon a 400 year old ruling that had not been used in 99 years. Now on the 29th March (the original Brexit day), May is going to try and pass some of her deal in a bid to get the extension till the 22nd May. However, the truth is that even with a growing number of Conservative Brexiteers supporting her deal – very reluctantly – her failure to get the DUP and at least 15-25 Labour MPs, means that it will likely fail. Bercow has already warned that she only has one shot at this partial deal.
PM Theresa May: I can say this almost as a fact: Theresa May will not be the Prime Minister at the end of 2019. I say end of 2019, because May has shown remarkable resistance and fightback from even the most desperate situations. However, this time it truly is the point of no return. May has said she will resign if her deal gets passed but I genuinely don’t see how she can stay on for much longer either way. Rumours of leadership contests are already underway and while many factions are emerging it is clear it is going to be an almighty fight between Brexiteers and Remainers for control of the party. Expect a general election to follow suit quickly.
I also want to be clear. I think Theresa May has done a better job than nearly any Conservative member of this current crop (and far better than if Corbyn was in power) could have hoped to do. She has been attacked by everyone on everything. Yet putting herself aside, she has fought tooth and nail at home and abroad to make a deal that will not financially devastate the country, while trying to respect the ‘will’ of the people. Many pundits say she has failed and to some extent its true. But she was doomed from the start and fought back on so many occasions when people were trying to knock her down. To PM May, I have nothing but respect to a woman who destroyed her political legacy by putting national interests (albeit how she saw them) first.
Parliament takes control…for about 48 hours: In another extremely embarrassing defeat and as the rulebook on the norms of how government operates is ripped up, parliament wrestled control of the agenda off the government. Finally parliament could show what they wanted through a series of indicative votes and then narrow them down, when the more popular options were revealed. So parliament voted on 8 different motions, all different options related to Brexit from a 2 referendum to a customs union. All eight motions failed to be passed. This illusion that parliament could somehow negotiate a better deal or even has an inkling of how to handle the Brexit process was shattered just days after they had finally taken control because enough was enough. All that came out of the process was more anger towards the institutions that represent the people and are meant to make decisions on their behalf and an international community that is looking at the UK, in the same way they the UK watched the Ottoman empires final days. Pity at the transformation of one the greatest powers the world has seen into a nation of squabbling politicians throwing their country off a cliff edge on purpose.
Will of the people: This is another issue that I want to tackle. What exactly is the will of the people? Just about the only thing people can agree upon is that Brexit has made the UK an absolute laughing stock. The people are extremely divided. One the hand there is the growing support for the cancellation of Brexit and a second referendum. An online petition to revoke Article 50, gathered 6 million votes in one week although was quickly dismissed by parliament who pointed to the significant turn-out of the referendum result. A march in London took place, where over million people came out asking for a second referendum. Meanwhile just about every MP points finger at each other and somehow seem to make the dust storm grow even bigger. On the other side, in polls it shown that that a slim majority does not want a second referendum (although the results vary significantly depending on the wording of the question). There is also widespread fury that the UK is not leaving the EU on 29th March as they had been promised for over two years. There is a real dissatisfaction from just about everyone in the country, although why they’re angry depends on whom you ask.
Further extensions? Unless the deal is agreed upon, then as things currently stand no further extension will be granted by the EU. The date chosen 12th April, is the final date before the UK has to announce whether they will be running in the upcoming European Elections later this year. Should parliament suspend Article 50, then that it would be a different matter but that is a whole other pandora’s box waiting to be opened. If parliament does agree to May’s deal before the end of today (at time of writing), then the Brexit deadline will be 22nd May.
I cannot even fully explain to you the scenes that take place on almost daily basis in the UK. People are fed up and angry and consensus on all issues is near impossible to achieve. The country is in desperate need of healing and unity. Don’t expect to see it from anyone in the Conservative or Labour party anytime soon.
Later that day
May’s deal has been rejected for a third time. The consequences of this rejection are far-ranging, although for Westminster it has become just another day in the office. The deal, which was rejected by a total of 58, far less than the previous defeats is still nonetheless another huge blow for Theresa May and the whole Brexit process. Legally, the UK will exit the European Union on the 12th April 2019. Leaders across the EU bloc are now once more frantically upping the preparations surrounding a no-deal Brexit. President of the European Council Donald Tusk has called for a meeting between leaders on the 10th April as the UK (the country that hasn’t been able to make a single decision for 3 years) has two weeks to deicide its fate. The problem now is that the UK will have to decide whether to ask for another extension or a suspension of Article 50. As the House of Commons voted that they would reject a no-deal scenario, this would mean that UK would have to take part in European elections and would likely mean that they would remain in the EU for many more months and likely years.
All of the above is politically toxic but it seems that once more that either the UK will go crashing out or they have to once more beg for more time from their EU counterparts, as the reputation of the UK continues to crash further. The electorate is fed up and divided. A general election is surely around the corner which opens whole other can of worms of whether Theresa May will be leading the Conservative party and what their stance on Brexit will be. With May and opposition leader Corbyn being some of the most disliked politicians in recent memory, the electorate may well reject both parties on masse if they continue with their leaders. For Brexiteers voting for either Corbyn (whose party wants to remain) or May (who has lost all support for her supposed ‘betrayal’) is not an option they want. While Labour represent Remain, who are now a majority in the UK according to recent polls, their leader Corbyn is even more unpopular than Theresa May. Many pro-Remainers (especially those who are pro-business and anti-nationalisation) will steer well clear of the Labour party, who would under nearly any other leader, be in power.
Depending on who can wrestle the leadership of the Conservative party will have major implications for the likely general election. The election may also represent a second referendum by proxy as all parties involved will have Brexit as their main focus, even as other major problem areas go unaddressed because of the constant fiasco of today’s UK politics. A general election may also prove a good chance for some of the smaller parties, including the newly formed IG to fight wrestle away large parts of the electorate who are fed up with the two main parties’ complete ineptitude.
The paradox of Brexit is that the more decisions that are taken, the less clear it is what position the UK has taken.
Monday 8th April 2018
The paradox of Brexit is that the more decisions that are taken, the less clear it is what position the UK has taken. The more information that becomes available the unclearer the whole process has become. Far from reaching a compromise, it feels every day that the country has become further divided. Sensible debate has been thrown out, party lines redrawn on where you stand on Brexit, while extremists have taken full hostage of the situation. It is not the moderates turning the wheels anymore. People in Britain are tired of Brexit and with lack of support for May’s deal the options have whittled down. If Brexit is to happen with a deal, it will take long time with far more negotiating. The public largely agrees it doesn’t want this. However, that is as far as the agreement goes. On Friday 12th April, despite the parliament passing a bill stopping a no Brexit deal, the UK will head out off the EU with no deal if an extension is granted on the 10th April by the EU, where a special meeting has been called by EU council head Donald Tusk. It’s anyones guess how things will end up, so instead let’s focus on what’s happened this week.
No-Brexit ain’t happening.
An emergency bill to stop a No-deal Brexit from happening was passed by one vote in parliament. This bill was rushed through and just barely won, with Brexiteers fuming, claiming Brexit has been stolen or hijacked. The result forces Theresa May to seek more time and in UK law that Britain cannot leave the EU without a deal. It must still pass the House of Lords who are debating the bill over the next few days, for it to become law. However, without an extension from the EU than in four days’ time at 11pm the UK will be out of the EU. We’ve been here before but this time it feels even closer as the country balances on a knife edge.
Please Sir can I have some more…time?
Theresa May has formally written for more time in the Brexit negotiations. The likely truth is that if the UK chooses to go for an extension, there will be a need for well over a year. In that time, there will likely be a general election or maybe even a referendum. The EU is looking for way to move past Brexit to deal with other issues. They have done everything in their power to show that it is not them inflicting ill on the UK but rather the UK themselves. Their offering of two dates shows that. Whether they will show such flexibility remains to be seen. With May’s deal dead in the water and time running out, the EU will be looking for a sign that there is some coherence and will to move forward if they were to grant an extension. Otherwise they’re just prolonging the circus that has sadly become part of daily life.
Better the enemy I know than the devil I don’t
In a surprise move, the PM reached out to her counterpart in the opposition Jeremy Corbyn. The two, alongside several members from both parties had a series of meeting trying to find a cross-party solution. Corbyn however has failed to commit truly to a position and emerged from this these talks as ever with a coy avoidance of committing to a deal, while trying to keep the Labour party together that is bursting at the seems from the lack of leadership. Conservative and Labour continue to have a series of meetings in order to try and get out of the Brexit deadlock. Nobody is really holding their breathe.
At this point, regardless of your position on the matter, all we can do is wait to see how the events of this week play out. My guess is that the show is far from over and there will be far more to come. In many ways I wish I could predict happier tidings. So, after all this you’re asking, what on earth is happening with Brexit and what is going to happen next, you are not alone. My advice: Welcome to the Brexit jungle, where the only constant law is chaos, confusion and hurt. Strap in and try to survive the biggest farce ever concocted in the country that once led the world, as they continue their self-inflicted freefall from the pinnacle of the world.
I am in my first year of my masters at Bocconi studying Politics and Policy Analysis. I am passionate about politics, IR, history and Inter. I currently write on the weekly dispatch, covering Asia/Middle East.