Will May get her heart broken at Valentine’s Vote on Brexit?

Sabine Tyldesley

When the Prime Minister gave her statement on her ‘Plan B’, which largely promised to seek to make everyone happy, so they could vote for her deal (unlike the first time, which resulted in a historic defeat), frantic calculations concluded a second ‘meaningful vote’ would likely be held… on 14 February aka Valentine’s Day.

But will her heart be broken on that day? And if so, what are the chances of the UK leaving the EU on time?

The passing of the Brady amendment – which instructed the Government to make the replacement of the Irish backstop with “alternative arrangements” part of ‘Plan B’ – led to reports of renewed momentum in Westminster, a strengthened Prime Minister, who would take a clear message back to Brussels. But the EU has repeatedly emphasised that the Withdrawal Agreement as negotiated was not going to be re-opened. As for the backstop, several EU27 leaders have stressed in no uncertain terms that the backstop is an insurance policy, the removal of which would arguably defeat the purpose of having it in the first place.

Tensions in the negotiations between the PM with the EU abroad (remember the Salzburg Summit? And the statement that followed?) have in the past often had the effect of strengthening the position of the PM at home. But this time, the EU’s reported position, that Theresa May may have negotiated in bad faith with the intention of reopening talks on the backstop is not going down well at all on both sides.

Cabinet ministers are confirming in response to the EU, there is no clear position on precisely what “alternative arrangements” are, and media report nine Cabinet ministers believe an Article 50 extension (aka delay on Brexit) may be needed to finalise the terms of a deal.

Brussels reporters are clear: no one is expecting movement by 14 February, or even 21 March – the next EU Council meeting – so Theresa May might struggle to turn the EU’s “intransigence” into a home-game win this time.

The so-called ‘Malthouse compromise’, an idea which excited Eurosceptic Conservatives last week, suggests (alongside changes to the backstop provision) a renewed focus on future trade negotiations, which the EU is open to. Letters by Presidents Donald Tusk (European Council) and Jean-Claude Juncker (European Commission) made it a priority to find alternative arrangements in the future negotiations but Chief Negotiator Michel Barnier was quick to stress “We are ready to work on them immediately after the signature of the Withdrawal Agreement”.

Meanwhile in Westminster temperatures are rising (not literally) while the calendar shows just under 30 Parliamentary working days left – this includes parliamentarians’ planned February break days cancelled.

Last week, the House of Commons European Scrutiny Committee (which assesses the importance of draft EU legislation) took a close look at EU contingency planning documents in a ‘No Deal’ scenario. They accuse the Government of “lack of candour about its Brexit preparations” and conclude “the necessary preparations to avoid the disruption of the abrupt departure from the Single Market and Customs Union, […] are unlikely to be fully in place”.

Regarding the Commission’s contingency measures, the Committee concluded they are “narrow in scope and limited in duration, [and] merely reinforce the point that there would be a vast range of long-term issues that would remain unresolved in a ‘no deal’ scenario.”

Invisible to public attention, Parliament continues to try keeping up with the raft of legislation flowing from Withdrawal, with some questioning the effectiveness of the scrutiny of these measures – considering the outcry over so called Henry VIII powers last year.

Back to the Brexit deal however – if there is a deal and a vote – the PM will need a strong support system to move any orderly withdrawal forward. Three options:

  1. It could be “Tory survival instinct” which will bring the ERG and other Conservative rebels back into her arms.
  2. It could be the EU, after they agree a “third way”, an “addendum”, a “legal codicil” to do the deed without reopening the Withdrawal Agreement. Which of course would need to be acceptable to Parliament.
  3. Or it could be those 20 Labour MPs who are reportedly “theoretically, interested in being persuaded”, be it for money or not.

Parliament showed in the ‘Plan B Motion’ vote this week, that there is no parliamentary majority to leave with No Deal, but with the PM tasked to find an impossible compromise, she either needs to make a Hail Mary pass, or a decisive step to delay exit day, to salvage this relationship.

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