Winner of the New Statesman SPERI Prize in Political Economy 2016

Friday, 1 March 2019

Parliament’s Brexit Game: has anything changed?

The PM’s only chance of getting her deal through by the end of March was to have No Deal as the inevitable and only alternative. Parliament has finally prevented that, for the moment. The threat of cabinet resignations (to allow voting for the Cooper bill that would delay Brexit in order to prevent No Deal) has forced May to propose the same. Parliament will now, in sequence, vote against May's deal, against No Deal and for a short delay. Voting against No Deal is just symbolic: only voting for a delay can prevent No Deal.

A delay will require agreement from the EU, but all the signs are that they will grant it. Macron understandably wants a good reason, but at the end of the day I suspect the prospect of a No Deal that would damage the EU as well as the UK (just less so) will mean they will grant what the UK asks for. Just as No Deal was never a credible threat for May in her negotiations with the EU, neither is refusing a delay a credible threat by the EU. All 27 states have to agree, but they probably will with the help of collective pressure.

But nothing really changes with a short delay. May is not going to suddenly get a major change in the Withdrawal Agreement in two months. It is difficult to see what UK event could change enough minds in any particular direction. Thanks to the ERG, the option of forcing May out is not on the table. Are we going to end up replaying all this drama in two months time?

The hurdle in a few months time to a further delay is a little higher because of elections to the European parliament. May could be hoping that this factor alone would mean there would not be a majority in parliament for a further delay, and she can finally get her Deal or No Deal vote. For the same reason, the ERG can hope that they finally get to the edge of the cliff and beyond. In that sense, the real fight starts later, unless enough MPs have the sense to think ahead.

At this point it is worth reflecting on the dog that did not bark. When I looked at the parliamentary numbers in January I tried to assess whether any coalition of MPs could form to produce an alternative to May’s Deal. The issue is not the Withdrawal Agreement (WA) itself, but the future trade agreement that will be negotiated immediately after the WA is passed. Parliament’s only real lever to set the framework for those negotiations is to give instructions now. (A common myth is that the EU has prevented us negotiating on trade before A50 ends. In reality all they wanted is to set the terms of the WA first. It was Conservative MPs faffing around that prevented us starting trade negotiations before March 2019.) With a Brexiter sure to succeed May, the option of letting the WA pass and hoping for the best is foolish in the extreme.

I saw two main possibilities for any coalition of MPs that could come up with an alternative plan. One possibility was that enough Conservative MPs could join with most Labour MPs to agree a soft Brexit. Another is that the People’s Vote and soft Brexit groups could combine forces by offering a referendum on Remain versus a softer Brexit.

In fact something close to both of those things happened. At the end of January Labour put forward their soft Brexit proposal together with a public vote on that proposal. Voting was pretty well along tribal lines, with no Tory members voting for (including those now in the IG!), and a number of Labour MPs abstaining. The inability of Tory MPs to vote against their own party, even when in three cases they must have known they might well leave that party, effectively killed off this attempt at agreeing an alternative to May’s bill.

Sensible Tories could have tried to break down their own tribalism by doing something similar themselves, but instead they tried to compromise with the ERG, which is a sure path to nowhere. The only way any deal can be approved by a majority in the House is with cross party cooperation, and neither May nor her backbenchers seem willing to do that. Whether this is a generic problem, or a result of an impending election for party leader (and therefore PM) that will be decided by a very Brexiter party membership, is not clear. But it reminds me, not for the first time, of US Republicans, who voted to oppose anything Obama put before them just because he had put it forward.

So we not only have the ERG who think a referendum where No Deal was hardly mentioned by the Leave side is a mandate for No Deal, or a Prime Minister who has produced a deal that fails to unite the country but instead just panders to her pathological dislike of immigrants, but we also have Conservative moderates who refuse to cross party lines to get a less damaging and more realistic soft Brexit. This shows us how much the Brexit crisis is a problem the Conservative party has inflicted, and continues to inflict, on us. 


  1. Thank you Simon for a very sensible look at the mess.

  2. Yet you could argue the other way if you were that politically inclined: that the problem is that almost no Labour MPs are willing to vote for the withdrawal agreement, that, while far from perfect, leaves a lot of things up in the air and is better in many ways than permanent customs or single market membership (in terms of national sovereignty)

    Ultimately it’s the problem of Parliament. We have a too rigid partisan political culture that when we have ‘too much’ democracy (i.e. a referendum) and no parliamentary majority, it messes up our entire system.

  3. I agree with half the comments above and disagree with the other half. I expect the ratio will hold true for the comments below as well.


Unfortunately because of spam with embedded links (which then flag up warnings about the whole site on some browsers), I have to personally moderate all comments. As a result, your comment may not appear for some time. In addition, I cannot publish comments with links to websites because it takes too much time to check whether these sites are legitimate.