May’s Plan B to Re-label Plan A
I suppose there is a kind of inescapable logic to the proposition that Theresa May laid before the House of Commons for alterations to the EU Withdrawal Deal that suffered the worst margin of defeat in British parliamentary history less than a week before. May has long claimed that hers was “the only” deal that would deliver Brexit and the best possible deal with the EU. She never continues to add the rider “within the constraints of the red lines that my cabinet and I have insisted upon”, of course. In the wake of the defeat, she claims to have made three alterations (or desired alterations) that she hopes will make the bill palatable to a majority of MPs:
A further attempt to find an alteration to the backstop acceptable to the DUP and her own party that could be offered to Brussels;
Further reassurances on workers’ rights and environmental protection;
And a more consultative approach to the next phase of negotiations involving MPs, unions and business groups.
The last of these concessions is irrelevant since it won’t happen unless the deal is approved and wasn’t a reason as to why it was refused. The first “concession” is more of the same that May tried between pulling the original vote in early December and holding the vote last week – nothing emerged that was acceptable to this faction of MPs and it is likely that what would be would be rejected by the EU who have adopted a stable and constant line on the absolute requirement for the backstop, so it seems unlikely to bear fruit.
May has continued to refuse to rule out the threat of a disastrous “no deal” Brexit, but it is clear that many in government will resign if this looks to be the direction of travel. She remains implacably opposed to a further referendum on the matter claiming that: “There has not yet been enough recognition of the way that a second referendum could damage social cohesion by undermining faith in our democracy”. She has failed to address the fact that polling has shown a clear majority of the electorate now favours holding such a vote and that the remain view is now the majority position.
May continues to rule out a permanent customs union with the EU which could attract opposition support and appear to be trying to woo dissidents in her own party and the DUP rather than reach a consensus across the House.
Spain’s foreign minister, Josep Borrel, (speaking before May unveiled her “Plan B”) summed up the situation (and hinted at the frustration in Europe) very well:
“I think that such a large difference in votes, we are talking about a 1:3 ratio, such a big difference, I do not think it can be saved with marginal adjustments in the current plan. I do not think she can convince MPs by presenting the same agreement with some tweaks. She has to bring something substantially different but, of course, that would have to be approved by the EU, so we have to wait until this afternoon to see what she says. We cannot continue negotiating something, as it has happened this time, and when everything is negotiated, the parliament rejects it. We have to have the guarantee that she has enough political support so that what is negotiated is not rejected at the last moment.”
It is increasingly likely that parliament may assert itself and take a greater degree of control of the process. Planned moves in amendments would see the effective ruling out of a no deal Brexit, a further referendum and extension to A50 notice (this would require the agreement of the EU, of course). The viability of these moves will be seen before the end of the month.