Groundhog Day as May’s Brexit ‘Plan A’ is also her ‘Plan B’
Brexit-watchers will be forgiven for feeling that they are caught in a time loop, repeatedly living the same moments, just as in the hit 1993 movie “Groundhog Day.” For, on Monday, Prime Minister Theresa May delivered a “Plan B” for exiting the EU that is virtually identical to the one that last week saw her on the receiving end of the largest House of Commons defeat in the modern political era.
Despite last week’s high political drama in Westminster, it therefore appears “nothing has changed,” to coin one of May’s infamous phrases. Yet, underlying her announcement on Monday and the paralysis of her UK government, there are potentially key developments now underway in the House of Commons. These could be very significant next week and in February, when more votes will be held.
What this underlines is that, amid growing Brexit uncertainty, one of the few possibilities is that Parliament will increasingly take more control of the fraught EU exit process as pro-Brexit and opposition MPs flex their muscles. Take the example of the Brexiteers, with many key figures evidently chastened by the scale of last week’s loss by May.
A signal of growing Brexiteer anxiety over the outcome of the process came on Sunday, when influential backbench MP Jacob Rees-Mogg called for right-of-center Conservatives, and leading Brexiteers from other parties, to come together in the national interest. What Rees-Mogg refers to here is a split within the ranks of pro-Brexit supporters between pragmatists such as leading Cabinet minister Michael Gove, who have backed May’s deal, versus those who prefer a no-deal Brexit like Rees-Mogg and Boris Johnson.
Beneath the permafrost of May’s Brexit position, a thaw is underway in Parliament that is seeing a rejuvenated battle of wills between Brexiteers and opposition MPs.
Given the increasing threat that some Brexiteers now perceive to their cherished political project, it is clear that some “no-dealers” like Rees-Mogg are increasingly open to compromise. As he said on Sunday, “if I had to choose between no deal and Mrs. May’s original accord, I would have no hesitation of opting for a no-deal Brexit, but even Mrs. May’s deal would be better than not leaving at all.”
This could be the beginning of a crucial shift in position that could yet see a substantial slice of the 118 Tory MPs, plus potentially the 10 Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) MPs from Northern Ireland, who last week voted against May’s deal softening their stance. In so doing — especially if May can get concessions from Brussels on the so-called “Irish backstop” — there remains the remarkable prospect that her deal could yet have a second lease of life.
It is this internal dynamic within the Brexiteer camp that helps explain why May’s Brexit “Plan B” is virtually the same as her “Plan A.” For it seems overwhelmingly likely, for now at least, that, rather than reaching out to opposition MPs, May will again seek to persuade her party and the DUP of the merits of the plan, despite the uncertainty of Brussels offering up any more concessions to facilitate this.
Yet the reluctance of the EU27 to compromise further is not the only reason why May and Brexiteers now face a real battle to realize a right-of-center “hard” exit from the EU. For, as well as the uncertainty over the position of Brussels, opposition MPs are seizing the initiative.
On Monday, for instance, the Labour Party submitted an amendment, to be considered as soon as next week, that calls for a vote on its own “softer” Brexit plan. This includes the prospect of remaining in the EU Customs Union, plus the later possibility of a second public vote on Brexit if no option can secure a consensus in the House of Commons.
Amid this uncertain battle of wills in Westminster, there is one further possibility beyond the House of Commons taking greater control of Brexit. That is the growing likelihood that the two-year Article 50 process may need to be extended, potentially until the summer.
Aside from the continuing political failure to pass a withdrawal deal, it is increasingly unlikely that London will have in place by the end of March a new domestic legislative framework to enable Brexit. A backlog of at least six key UK exit bills covering trade, agriculture, fisheries, health care, financial services, and immigration must be passed before the nation can leave the EU.
Yet, with only about 60 days until the nation is scheduled to leave — even if MPs and Lords sit at weekends and cancel the scheduled February parliamentary recess — there may not now be enough time to pass all this key legislation.
Taken overall, beneath the permafrost of May’s Brexit position, a thaw is underway in Parliament that is seeing a rejuvenated battle of wills between Brexiteers and opposition MPs. As the March deadline closes in, this means there is a growing possibility that Article 50 will be extended, and thus the possibility of yet more Brexit “Groundhog Days” to come.
• Andrew Hammond is an Associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics.