26 February 2019

The Prime Minister has moved to head off defeat, and Jeremy Corbyn has thrown Labour’s support behind a second referendum. But Jill Rutter says neither leader has settled the Brexit stand-off.

After months of intransigence, there have been two Brexit moves in two days. On first glance, Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn appear to have radically rewritten their respective Brexit scripts. But a closer look suggests that neither the Prime Minister or the Labour leader have really helped to clarify how Parliament’s Brexit drama might end.

First up, Jeremy Corbyn. Under pressure from his frontbench, his backbenchers – with potential further defectors to The Independent Group – and party members, he finally agreed to put Labour weight behind another referendum if Labour’s own Brexit proposals are rejected by MPs.

The Prime Minister was next. Under pressure from her dissident ex-Remainer ministers, a number of whom had threatened to resign and vote for Yvette Cooper and Oliver Letwin’s amendment to give Parliament control of the Brexit process, the Prime Minister has offered three successive days of votes in the Commons in mid-March.

The Meaningful Vote on her (she hopes revised) deal well be held by 12 March. If that fails then there will be a vote the next day on whether to head for a No Deal Brexit. If the Commons rejects a No Deal Brexit, then a vote on whether to ask for an extension to Article 50 will be held on 14 March.

The Prime Minister’s concessions leave a lot of unanswered questions

By splitting the motions, the PM has made it possible for MPs to both reject no deal and reject an extension. She failed to explain why she would not simply put the votes in one motion – but MPs could amend it on 13 March to do just that.

She is as Delphic as ever about her own preferences. Pressed to say how (or indeed whether) she would whip Conservatives to support no deal, she refused to be drawn. She also said an extension would be “short”, but would not clarify how long that meant. She did not reveal what she would do if the EU refused an extension and suggested something longer – or indeed how she would argue the case for an extension in the first place.

The PM is still not clear what improvements she will bring back from Europe, but she did give some hints of the concessions she might offer to induce the European Research Group (ERG) to back her deal. She dangled the prospect of  a workstream in the future relationship negotiations on “alternative arrangements” and civil service support and funding for work back in the UK – as well as involving “external experts” – which could mean a place at the table for those who claim to have found a way through the impasse.

She trailed talks between Steve Barclay and Michel Barnier to provide more clarity on the vague Political Declaration. And she firmed up her commitments to potentially deal-backing Labour MPs – such as John Mann and Caroline Flint – on social protection and environmental standards, including the right for Parliament to decide whether to follow EU standards.

However, there were no guarantees that her deal will be redrawn in a way to guarantee Parliament’s backing.

The Prime Minister has staved off defeat, but not yet come closer to delivering a Brexit deal

The PM told MPs that, if they opted for delay over her deal, the UK could still be facing a no deal Brexit. She stressed that she thought the EU would not extend Article 50 a second time because the UK would not have taken part in European Parliament elections in the interim. A few months from now, the cliff edge will be in even sharper focus.  

So she still seems to believe that the best chance of securing support for her Brexit deal is to maintain the risk of no deal, in order to persuade those who fear that outcome to back her (and to force the EU to make concessions). For now, however, by giving MPs a route to delay Brexit she has temporarily eased that pressure.  

Corbyn’s move, on the other hand, may just have persuaded some of the PM’s Brexit-supporting backbenchers that the risk of Brexit being reversed has increased if they don’t support her deal for a second time. But they could also argue that by end of June the UK could be better placed to weather no deal than at the end of March.   

The arithmetic remains the same. Theresa May still needs to find a way to move 100 votes into her column to get her deal through the House of Commons. Today’s statement may have kept her Cabinet intact, and Corbyn’s announcement might have eased Labour tensions, but neither leader has settled the Brexit stand-off.