With time running out until Britain’s scheduled departure from the European Union on March 29, Theresa May has been seeking changes to the withdrawal agreement that was defeated in parliament by 230 votes in January. Her so-called “Irish backstop”, which would come into force in the event of a failure to agree a future trade deal, has become the defining obstacle to a deal on the British side. The early signals from the EU have not been encouraging. Several senior figures have said there is no scope for reopening talks on the deal.
May’s parliamentary defeat came after 118 Conservative MPs, primarily hard-Brexiteers but also some Remainers, joined forces with the opposition parties to reject her deal. The Brexiteers believed the withdrawal agreement gave away too much to Brussels, while the Remainers hoped either for a softer form of Brexit or a second referendum. Labour has its own divisions on Brexit, but voting against the withdrawal agreement was the one course of action on which most factions could agree.
An appealing solution
Amid this chaos, some urged the prime minister to seek a cross-party consensus to pass the withdrawal agreement. She had 196 Tory MPs supporting her on the original withdrawal agreement and could seek further support from pragmatic Labour MPs who want a softer Brexit but would be willing to back a deal. That would be easier with the support of Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the opposition. Even if Corbyn were not amenable to a deal, the government might pass the withdrawal agreement if it won the backing of centrist Labour MPs representing Leave-voting constituencies.
Meanwhile, the Conservatives’ own hard Brexiteers, most notably those associated with Jacob Rees-Mogg’s European Research Group (ERG), would be left in the cold. Their opposition would no longer be enough to stop the withdrawal agreement from passing.
This plan appears superficially attractive. Supporters of a soft Brexit in both parties have urged such cross-party cooperation. It was implicit in the plans by backbench MPs to shift control of Brexit from the government to parliament. It might provide the basis for an agreement for Britain to remain in the customs union, as in the “Norway-plus” plan. The EU has also signalled its receptiveness to customs union membership. Moreover, supporters of a cross-party soft-Brexit compromise believe it could enjoy a parliamentary majority drawn from MPs across the party divide.
Yet May’s immediate response to her parliamentary defeat was not to seek a cross-party deal, but to turn towards the ERG and the anti-backstop Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), which also voted against it.
Although the prime minister was criticised by Remainers, her move was to be expected. In a largely two-party system (at least in the contest for government) such as the UK, the major parties are broad coalitions of opinion. That means they can sometimes become deeply divided over contentious issues that cross party lines, as both Labour and the Conservatives are over Brexit. Deep splits in major UK parties can leave them in turmoil, severely damaging their credibility with voters, who generally shun divided parties.
To take the case of the Conservatives, if May sought to pass the withdrawal agreement with Labour votes amid large-scale opposition from pro-Brexit Conservative and the DUP MPs (which might feasibly happen if the Irish backstop remained), the result could be catastrophic for the party. There would be cabinet resignations, the unity and cohesion of the parliamentary party would dissolve, and the eurosceptic grassroots would openly revolt. It is difficult to see how the government could survive, particularly (but not only) if the DUP withdrew its support. The Conservative Party would face an historic split, with pro and anti-agreement factions fighting for control.
May’s desperation to avoid such a split has given the ERG some influence over the shape of Brexit. The ERG’s threats to withhold support are credible because of its ideological commitment to a harder Brexit. Although it failed in its attempt to remove May as party leader in December, the 117 MPs it mobilised against her in the ballot was a show of strength. Now, few doubt its willingness to vote against a withdrawal agreement that retained the existing time-unlimited backstop. Many ERG members insist that no deal is better than a bad deal. Threatening the ERG with a no-deal Brexit is unlikely to win them over. Consequently, May confirmed that movement was needed from the EU.
No deal is still on the table
Even that was not enough. Many ERG figures, including Rees-Mogg, refused to support Graham Brady’s government-backed amendment to the parliamentary motion on May’s Plan B, which called for changes to the backstop, on the grounds that the amendment was too vague. Eventually, the prime minister made a commitment to seek legally binding changes to the backstop and the ERG voted for the amendment. From the ERG’s perspective, these tactics were necessary because it believes the government’s Brexit policy has been driven by former Remainers who see their task as one of damage limitation, as with the Chequers plan of July 2018. It is the ERG’s job to prevent the government settling for an outcome that is Brexit in name only. At a minimum, that means the backstop must go.
Some in government retain the hope that many Brexiteers, fearful of no-deal chaos or a delay to Brexit, can be won round, isolating perhaps 20 ERG ultras. But there were similar hopes before the first vote on the withdrawal agreement. If the bulk of the Conservative Party is to hold together over Brexit – with perhaps the exception of a relatively small number of pro-EU Tories – then any withdrawal agreement will need to be passed with Conservative votes in parliament, with backing from the DUP and a few pro-Brexit Labour rebels (as with the Brady amendment).
But a pan-Conservative-DUP coalition of support would severely limit the type of withdrawal agreement that would be acceptable. If the EU refuses to renegotiate the most contentious part of the withdrawal agreement, the Irish backstop, a no-deal Brexit remains a realistic possibility.