Finally, after two tortuous years of negotiations, it looked like the UK’s elected representatives were about to vote on Prime Minister Theresa May’s Brexit deal. Then, despite vowing to go ahead, May decided to postpone the vote the day before. She had faced almost certain defeat and now says she will speak to EU leaders to find a new way forward.
Technically and legally May was within her rights to back out of the vote. However, the political optics are another thing altogether. This is a government, remember, found in contempt of parliament for withholding information from MPs. Pulling such an important vote out of self-interest does not look good. Doing so a day before the vote is not politic, as Speaker John Bercow pointed out after her statement. Just how much of the normal running order of UK politics is the prime minister ready to jettison?
It seems that May now intends to go back to Brussels and seek concessions around the Irish backstop – a sticking point that riled Brexiteers and Remainers MPs alike – in order to make the vote winnable at a later date. But the question here must be: what concessions? Is she going to ask that the UK as whole to stay in the customs union and maybe even the single market, which is the only real way the Irish border (and the backstop) problem disappears?
Not a chance: this would anger the Brexiteers in her party even more (if that is possible). Rather, the concession she is after is to somehow make the backstop more palatable to the people she has been appealing to from the beginning: the hard Brexiteers. That might be something like agreeing that the backstop becomes a temporary arrangement, somehow.
How will opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn react to this delay? Is he going to try and stick to the line that he wants a general election, promising that if – and it is a big “if” – he won that election he would go back and renegotiate with the EU?
If so, then his fate looks as bleak as May’s. What is it that he imagines he can offer that will provide enough fuel to power the EU27 to reopen the negotiations they have just taken so long to close? And remember, they are not just reopening negotiations with the UK, but among themselves too: they have to reach a unified position before they can agree a position with the UK. The idea that they will be able to reopen talks and get negotiations finished before the end of March is quite frankly ludicrous.
Apart, maybe, from one scenario: that a Labour government would offer to stay in the customs union, in the single market, accept freedom of movement and the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice. That may be motivation enough for the EU – but it is essentially staying in the EU in anything else but name (and decision-making power).
Whatever happens next, one thing is clear: the heads of the UK’s two main parties are no closer to solving this problem from their positions of leadership. It is to other MPs, then, that voters should turn. Only the House of Commons, acting as a collective body, can steer the nation through this political mess.
We should remember that despite all the cries of betrayal from the Brexiteers, this House of Commons as a collective entity was constituted by the people in a vote that superseded the referendum: the snap election of 2017. The MPs that sit in this parliament are the representatives the people chose to enact Brexit in 2017.
And key here is that this house of Commons is hung – there is no outright majority. A clearer display of where the country is at you could not find. As a reflection of that very vote, this house has found it very difficult to agree on anything as the negotiations on Brexit have progressed.
This, then, is the state of the House of Commons as we head into Christmas. And the reality is, everything the government and the opposition have tried so far in terms of Brexit has so far failed. MPs need to find away to coalesce around a different way forward. There needs to be a a proposal, plan or motion that will attract the magic number of 314 MPs needed for a majority in order that a way out can be enacted.
Crucially, we know that if such a plan were to emerge, it would not be a hard Brexit or May’s deal – that much has been proven in the run up to the originally planned vote. Whatever the proposal would be, we should remind ourselves and others that this will be the will of the people expressed via British constitutional means.
Whatever the focus on the role of the PM and other individual politicians in another crazy week, let’s try to remember that the collective sense of the country’s elective representatives is the key player here. Let’s hope it shows up.