Brexit: No incentive for EU to move as May loses another vote
Brussels likely to wait and see, pending vote on February 27th that may lead to extension
Theresa May is driven out of the Houses of Parliament after losing a vote on her Brexit withdrawal Bill. Photograph: Niklas Halle’n/AFP/Getty Images
Theresa May could have presented MPs on Thursday with a neutral motion that simply took note of her statement on the Brexit negotiations earlier this week. Instead the UK prime minister asked them to reiterate their support for “the approach to leaving the EU expressed by this House on January 29th”.
It must have seemed like a clever idea at the time, but if there is one thing the conspiracy theorists in the Brexiteer European Research Group (ERG) are good at, it’s spotting conspiracies. They understood that the motion could be interpreted not only as a reaffirmation of their demand for changes to the Northern Ireland backstop but also as a rejection of a no-deal Brexit in line with another amendment passed on January 29th.
The DUP voted with the government, a smart move that tells the government that its 10 votes are available for a Brexit deal as long as the prime minister keeps her promise to secure changes to the backstop. It has the additional merit of warning the government that if the DUP is not satisfied with a renegotiated deal, it will vote against it rather than abstaining.
Some leading figures in the ERG were reluctant to be seen to be responsible for the government’s defeat but their decision to abstain rather than vote against the motion did nothing to blunt their action. The Brexiteers have weakened May’s negotiating hand in Europe and diminished her chances of winning the concessions on the backstop that they are demanding.
For the EU, Thursday’s vote is confirmation that last month’s majority for the Brady amendment was a freak phenomenon and that the will of the House of Commons remains unsettled. EU negotiators have no incentive to offer any concessions to the UK ahead of a vote on February 27th, when MPs will be able to back an amendment that would force the government to seek an extension to the article 50 negotiating period.
As Conservative former minister Oliver Letwin told the House on Thursday, such an extension would offer MPs an opportunity to seek a consensus approach to Brexit. Such a consensus would almost certainly embrace a permanent customs union and possibly single-market membership.
Such a deal would be in the EU’s economic interest and would ease the difficulties Brexit creates for the Border, and Thursday’s vote will persuade EU leaders that it remains a possibility. While such hope is alive, why pass any concession on the backstop across the table to May, knowing that she will toss it into the furnace of the Conservative backbenches?