Brexit: parliament ties Theresa May in knots ahead of vote

May’s cabinet are pushing back against a no-deal scenario. PA/Adam Dennis

Having been controversially postponed in December, the parliamentary vote on the UK’s draft withdrawal agreement from the EU has been rescheduled for Tuesday January 15.

The prime minister seems confident that she can get her deal through but, then, the same was true back in December before she hastily cancelled the scheduled vote precisely because she came to accept that the opposite was true.

The deal is still the exact same one that MPs were sure to reject back in December. After months of telling people that it was the only deal on the table, the prime minister went to Brussels after the vote in parliament was put on hold to try and gain some concessions, only to be told that she had been right all along – it was indeed the only deal on the table.

Having failed in their attempt to oust May in a no-confidence vote in December, hard Brexit plotters Boris Johnson, Jacob Rees-Mogg and company have had to readjust their plans. But they continue to heckle from the sidelines and are still unlikely to support May’s proposal. Johnson is championing a no-deal scenario, which makes sense given that is where his current manoeuvrings are likely to lead. Of course, there are others in the Conservative Party who have their eyes on the premiership and many key government figures are positioning themselves for the leadership now that they know that May will be standing down before the next election. Numerous government ministers have spoken out against a no-deal scenario such as Amber Rudd, Chris Grayling, Michael Gove and Sajid Javid to name but a few. This may be a sign that May’s deal, or some version of it, could make it through parliament eventually.

The opposition benches

Someone else looking to claim the title of prime minister is of course Jeremy Corbyn, who reportedly plans to call a vote of no confidence in the government immediately if May loses the vote. Although he has been regularly criticised for not having a clear stance on Brexit, the reality is that the Labour leader perhaps doesn’t need one, not just yet anyway. There will come a time when he will have to take a stance, but his current “wait and see” approach keeps his options open and allows the Conservative Party to keep tearing itself apart. The longer that continues the greater his chance of ousting them at the next election. If he instructs his MPs to vote down the deal, the consequences for Labour might not be too detrimental given that the public (in no small part thanks to the efforts of people like Johnson and Rees-Mogg) don’t like the deal anyway. The real issue may come after the vote and whether or not to support a second referendum.

Rise of the resistance

Yvette Cooper: leader of the resistance? Shutterstock

However, right now it is Labour’s Yvette Cooper, not Corbyn, who appears to be putting up a more effective opposition to the prime minister. Leading a cross-party group of MPs she successfully tabled an amendment to the Finance Bill which will make it much more difficult to levy taxes in the event of a no-deal Brexit. The defeat won’t stop the Brexit process and the government can always find other ways to raise funds, but it highlights the struggles faced by the prime minister given her lack of a working majority in parliament. It also sends a clear signal that parliament is willing, and perhaps able, to take back control of the Brexit process. That message was driven home once again when the group successfully tabled and amendment that means the prime minister will have to return to the house with a plan within three days if she loses the vote on January 15.

It also suggests that a no-deal scenario is unpopular not just with key government figures but also with the majority of MPs in parliament and that the hardline Brexiteers are losing their influence on the discourse. This might be something the prime minister could use to help push through her deal, as given that the EU is unwilling to amend the deal itself, it really does appear to be her deal or no deal.

If the prime minister can get some strong assurances on the more contentious issues, something which the Irish Taoiseach has suggested is possible, then the deal could make it through parliament, perhaps after a few attempts. If not, there will be Labour’s potentially more successful vote of no confidence to deal with.

Failing that and in light of the EU’s insistence that negotiations will not be re-opened, perhaps the only other option is the highly divisive prospect of a second referendum.