The PM made one significant about turn in the Commons today – scrapping the £65 application fee for EU citizens applying for settled status. That move has been widely welcomed and will buy some goodwill (though many will ask why a charge to retain a right was ever contemplated).
The Prime Minister was firm in her resistance to a second referendum.
She refused to rule out no deal – saying that to do so would, in the absence of another deal, be tantamount to revoking Article 50.
She also poured cold water on the idea of delay.
But she did say that talks would continue, despite clearly not being prepared to move on many of the demands that will have been put to her since she invited MPs to take part in cross-party discussions.
The Prime Minister is now pursuing a twin track strategy
Track one focuses on the Withdrawal Agreement and the backstop.
The Prime Minister wants to see if she can find a way forward that will satisfy her anti-backstop backbenchers (in last week’s debate 51 Conservative rebels said that they could probably support her deal if the backstop was removed or substantially changed) and the DUP. She will then return to Brussels – at least meeting the ERG demand to request changes to the backstop. Her chances of success are probably still low as the EU has shown little willingness to engage in negotiations with what it sees as the “hard Brexiteers” – even with the intervention today of the Polish Foreign Minister who suggested a five year time limit.
Her second track is to offer Parliament a bigger role in shaping the future relationship – and offer some guarantees that might tempt some Labour waverers.
In last week’s debate, Business Secretary Greg Clark had suggested that the Government might support a Labour backbench amendment on workers’ rights. That was not selected – but today the PM indicated that the Government was prepared to look at how to guarantee no lowering of standards while also keeping open the possibility of matching EU changes.
On the future relationship – embodied so far in the 27-page Political Declaration – the PM appeared open to be listening to other parties. She made no promises of substance – but some of process. A bigger role for Parliament, including consultation (though stopping short of approval) of the mandate for the negotiations. Consultation with business, civil society and trade unions. More involvement for the devolved administrations. A recognition that Parliament needed to be engaged early, rather than forced to approve a deal with the clock ticking down.
This may be the outcome of the PM’s own reflections on the strategy that led her to the current impasse. Or it may be a genuine hint that, in return for passage of the Withdrawal Agreement and delivering Brexit on schedule, she is open to listening to a wider range of possible outcomes on the long-term relationship. This could possibly include the permanent Customs Union or a much closer single market relationship – or both. That could be a signal she would consider a softer Brexit and a recognition that that might be where the votes in Parliament are now. She has not yet promised to seek any changes in the Political Declaration – although the EU has indicated it would be easier to reopen than the Withdrawal Agreement.
The Prime Minister has fired the starting gun for the Commons to see whether it can come together on a way forward. She will now lay her “take note” motion, and MPs can start trying to amend that before the votes on 29 January.
The phony war, in which most opponents of the PM’s deal concentrated on voting it down, is now over. Next week is the start of the process of looking at a range of options, possibility eliminating some of them, and finding out whether Parliament can coalesce around an alternative.
If it can’t, then MPs will pass the baton back to the Prime Minister and give her another go at passing her deal – with any tweaks she has managed to muster – as the No Deal deadline looms ever larger.