Editor’s Note: Jane Merrick is a British political journalist and former political editor of the Independent on Sunday newspaper. The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers.
On Tuesday evening, members of Parliament voted in favor of preventing the UK exiting the European Union without a deal. On Wednesday, MPs voted to give the Prime Minister just three days to come up with an alternative plan if, as expected, her own carefully negotiated deal, is rejected by the Commons next week.
After a series of bruising defeats last month, it seems the Prime Minister is starting the New Year continuing to be thwarted by a parliament trying to exert its sovereignty.
And yet, as MPs prepare to begin a five-day debate ahead of that vote on the May deal next week, we are no closer to discovering what MPs actually want.
We know, after Tuesday’s vote, that there is a majority in favor of blocking a no deal. But there is little evidence of a majority in support of anything else – not May’s Brexit plan, nor an alternative Norway-style model for a future relationship with the EU, nor for a second referendum to allow the country to reject Brexit altogether.
Crucially, the attempt to block a no deal is, on closer scrutiny, flawed – because without an alternative, no deal is the default, no matter what Parliament says. If May’s plan is voted down next week and no other plan is put forward, Britain is leaving the EU without a deal, on the starkest of terms. The May plan is more than just a plan – it is a legal withdrawal agreement with the EU.
It is right that, after months of the government trying to force an unpopular version of Brexit on the Commons, MPs try to scrutinize the process of Britain’s departure as much as they can. Originally, May had tried to force Parliament into accepting her plan without a meaningful vote before that plan was even finalized with Brussels in November.
When the vote was slated for December, she postponed it, to the anger of MPs from all parties who suspected she was trying to run down the clock and make her deal a fait accompli by not allowing enough parliamentary time for a debate on any alternative. Brexit is happening on March 29, in 79 days – but in parliamentary terms, the timeframe is much tighter because of weekends and breaks, and there are only around 40 days left for debate.
Yet despite this obstructive approach from May and her government, the House of Commons has been confused over what the alternative should be. MPs need to have a better, more constructive plan than simply opposing a no deal.
But the truth is there is no consensus around an alternative, an incontrovertible fact in keeping with the divisive nature of Brexit. What’s more, while the withdrawal agreement negotiated with the EU needs to be ratified by the UK parliament – as well as all the other EU nations – it is not in Parliament’s gift to amend that deal.
Any changes they demand over the next few days and weeks need to be approved by Brussels. And, given the withdrawal agreement came after months of hardball negotiation with the EU, it is unlikely Brussels will give any substantial ground. Above all, Brussels will not move on one of the key demands of Brexiteers, that the Northern Ireland backstop be removed from the agreement.
Even the technical procedure which MPs used to try to block a no deal, by amending the Finance Bill – a keystone of government legislation – could have dramatic real-world implications, because it means if a no deal does actually take place, the government’s tax-raising powers will be restricted.
It is healthier for democracy that that meaningful vote will take place next week. But, if as is likely, the Prime Minister loses that vote and her plan dies, there needs to be a hardheaded and urgent alternative strategy ready to go, and the Commons needs to find a consensus.
If MPs get their way, they could force May to return to Parliament within three days of that vote with an alternative. But even then, this alternative must be approved by the EU. In this current Brexit stalemate, the UK Parliament may think it is sovereign, but ultimately it is the EU which retains the whip hand.