Brexit: What happened in Westminster last week?

by James Maxwell
Last week, Westminster scrambled to find a solution to the political impasse over Brexit with just nine days to go until the United Kingdom is due to leave the European Union.

Last week, Westminster scrambled to find a solution to the political impasse over Brexit with just nine days to go until the United Kingdom is due to leave the European Union.

Parliament has been concerned for some time over Theresa May’s handling of Brexit, with the belief that the government are purposefully ‘running down the clock’ in order to force MPs to choose between the Prime Minister’s deal and no-deal. The government had promised to lay out three key votes before MPs last week in a move to ‘test the will of Parliament’, including a vote on the Prime Minister’s deal with additional legal assurances, a no-deal Brexit scenario, and extending Article 50.

What led us here?

At its essence, Brexit was driven by electoral uncertainty. David Cameron called the referendum largely to keep his backbenchers in check, and to stop the electoral threat of UKIP to his own party. Having won the 2014 referendum on Scottish independence, Cameron believed a referendum on EU membership would be an easy win; allowing it to strengthen his grip on the party and country. 

However, the referendum produced a result that few predicted and planned for. Inheriting Downing Street from Cameron, Theresa May has spent the past two years negotiating the terms of Britain’s withdrawal, producing what she believed would get her over the line. Further attempts to overcome the uncertainty came in the form of a snap election which lost the government its majority and endangered the Prime Minister’s mandate. Flatly, with a country, Parliament, and government divided, Theresa May would have to defy all odds to secure approval for her deal.

What happened last week?

After suffering the biggest parliamentary defeat in history, Theresa May brought her deal back before Parliament for the second time, after last-minute concessions were secured with Brussels over the sticking point of the Irish backstop. Unfortunately for May, the Democratic Unionist Party, the government’s confidence and supply partners, and the Brexiteer European Research Group were left unsatisfied with the changes, leading Parliament to once again reject the deal by a majority of 149 on Tuesday 12th March.

On Wednesday, MPs were given the chance to vote against a no-deal scenario as previously promised by Theresa May. However, MPs were dismayed to find the motion put forward by the government contained a vital caveat which expressed that “leaving without a deal remains the default in UK and EU law unless this House and the EU ratify an agreement”. An amendment to rule-out no-deal in all circumstances was passed which led the government to scramble to whip MPs against their own motion, but ultimately the government was defeated, with MPs having voted against the UK crashing out of the EU.

The following day, scenes in the House of Commons were even more chaotic and embarrassing for the government as two-third of Conservative MPs openly defied the Prime Minister by voting against extending Article 50. The Brexit Secretary had urged MPs to vote for the government’s motion to extend Article 50 in the Chamber only to later defy his own government by voting against the motion.  He was followed by the Chief Whip, the person in charge of party discipline, who abstained from the vote. However, Parliament voted for the motion which seeks a short technical extension if the Prime Minister’s deal is passed, and a longer extension if the deal is not approved by 20th March.

Where to next?

The Prime Minister was expected to bring her deal back before Parliament this week in what would be the third attempt to persuade Parliament to approve the draft withdrawal agreement. Senior Government figures are in talks with their confidence and supply partners, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), in a bid to get the deal over the line. Some Conservative MPs who previously voted against the deal have stated they will not reject it for the third time, as they believe approving the deal is now the only option left for the UK. However, the Speaker of the House of Commons ruled that the Government cannot bring the same deal back before Parliament, torpedoing May’s plans and sparking what the Solicitor General described as a “major constitutional crisis”. It seems likely that the UK will request a longer extension to Article 50 at an EU Summit on Thursday 21st March.

A People’s Vote?

A referendum to take place during a longer extension is entirely possible. The amount of support for a referendum is increasing by the day, with the Labour Party almost ready to back calls for a People’s Vote. Many believe that although a referendum is far from ideal, it is the only solution to breaking the political deadlock. However, it remains to be seen how much discontent this will cause in both Labour and Conservative circles, and the level of support for a People’s Vote is difficult to measure.

It remains unclear as to what the next steps are if Parliament refuses to approve the deal by 29th March and Article 50 is extended. Brexit just may not happen after all. Regardless of whether the deal is approved this week, the Government will request an extension to Article 50 which will temporarily elevate the concerns among citizens, EU nationals, and business alike.