Free vote on no-deal Brexit is testament to May’s powerlessness

EU now in a stronger negotiating position than ever, but no deal remains legal default

UK prime minister Theresa May: Downing Street declined to confirm she would vote in favour of her own motion tomorrow. Photograph: Handout via Reuters

UK prime minister Theresa May: Downing Street declined to confirm she would vote in favour of her own motion tomorrow. Photograph: Handout via Reuters

 

Announcing a free vote for Conservative MPs on Wednesday’s motion rejecting a no-deal Brexit, Theresa May cited the precedent of the Brexit referendum. She said she had struggled with the choice as someone “passionately committed” to implementing the 2016 referendum result.

“But I equally passionately believe that the best way to do that is to leave in an orderly way with a deal, and I still believe there is a majority in the House for that course of action. And I am conscious also of my duties as prime minister of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and of the potential damage to the union that leaving without a deal could do when one part of our country is without devolved governance,” she said.

The prime minister’s offer of a free vote on the most important issue to face the House of Commons in decades is a measure of how weak her grip on the levers of political power has become. And although her statement suggested she opposed a no-deal Brexit, Downing Street declined to confirm that she would vote in favour of her own motion tomorrow ruling out a no-deal Brexit on March 29th.

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MPs are almost certain to reject leaving the EU without a deal, triggering a further vote on Thursday on whether to delay Brexit by seeking an extension to the article 50 deadline. Thursday’s motion will attract amendments aimed at allowing parliament to find a cross-party consensus about how to proceed with Brexit.

But as May pointed out on Tuesday, the extension is in the gift of the EU member states, which are likely to attach conditions that will further weaken the prime minister’s control over events.

Cox calamity

The decision to involve Geoffrey Cox in the negotiations with the EU last month has proven to be a calamitous misjudgment. MPs and ministers had long complained that May’s Europe adviser Olly Robbins was not sufficiently politically minded to negotiate a deal that would win a majority in parliament.

But Cox went to Brussels more as a lawyer than a politician, seeking legal solutions to political problems and raising unrealistic expectations at Westminster about what he could achieve. His lukewarm legal advice turned a modest possibility of victory for the prime minister on Tuesday into a thumping defeat.

Everything from a soft Brexit involving single market and customs union membership to a general election or a second referendum are now plausible outcomes. But a no-deal Brexit remains the default outcome, either on March 29th or a few weeks later, unless a majority of MPs can agree on an alternative. And any fresh option must win the approval of the EU, which is now in a stronger negotiating position than ever.

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