21 January 2019

The Prime Minister showed a bit of uncharacteristic flexibility in her statement today, but its real impact was to fire the starting gun on MPs attempts to find a way forward, writes Jill Rutter.

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

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.

Comments

Thanks for this précis.
It would appear that we are going to leave without a deal. Our parliamentarians are like children in the playground, having tantrums because they could not get their way. I don't believe that they have the ability to do what everyone else can see is necessary. They have too much self-interest to see the needs of their country. Barnier, the "Toast of Europe" in the negotiations will soon realise that there were considerable risks to his harsh and uncompromising negotiating strategy. Remember that right at the start he refused to negotiate a legally binding future relationship agreement in parallel with a withdrawal agreement. He then insisted on the Irish back stop. All sides say that after Brexit, no matter what happens, no one will be putting up border posts in Ireland. Everyone that lives there says that because of the geography the border would be impossible to police anyway. Is this not an implicit acceptance that, in the absence of a future trade agreement, there will have to be customs arrangements that do not involve physical border checks? If this is accepted, why make a big deal of it in the Withdrawal Agreement by insisting on keeping the UK in a customs union against its wishes if a free trade deal can not be negotiated. That was a step to far. It seemed to be a move designed to keep Britain in Europe for fear of reigniting violence in Ireland, though it was clothed in the need to protect the European free trade area.

After Brexit (without a deal) Barnier will find himself negotiating a new agreement on money, and a future relationship, at the same time. He will have lost most of leverage that he once had over the UK through the fear of the disruption that Brexit could cause at ports. He will probably end up with less money. The EUs only weapon will be the amount of disruption that it is prepared to cause at ports, but this will hurt them as well. He too is running out of time.

If he lets it run to the wire by insisting that "the ball is in their court" he will have squandered an opportunity to come to a negotiated settlement with the UK in good faith, with a UK Prime Minister who is the very emblem of honour and integrity, and caused hell at the ports at the same time. I don't think that there will be too many patting him on the back then. The ball may never return to the EU court. The game could be over. To continue the tennis parlance, the EUs shot may just have landed beyond the UK's service line.

Your prophecy on Barnier ignores the reality that UK have chosen to leave, they have signed a carefully negotiated deal on withdrawal and now Parliament refuses to ratify the deal. Your credibility is the issue.
It is not a problem for the 27 to solve. The EEC/ EU got on very nicely without the UK form 1956 to 1972.

May's speech on Monday was noteworthy for the apparent commitment to consultation with all parties, devolved Governments, unions, even, surprise, surprise, Parliament and it was an unexpected and most welcome new approach. The problem is total lack of credibility of this new approach coming from a PM who from the very inception of the Brexit process has taken every step possible to exclude contributions from any source - remember that business was not even allowed through the door in the first year of negotiations; impact assessments had to be dragged out; the Miller case; publication of legal advice; pulling votes; contradicting her Chancellor and other Cabinet Ministers etc and ongoing, that the comments of those parties leaving the "consultations" this last week showed that it was wasted time as she does not listen. To have a successful negotiation of a new relationship of the UK with the EU will require all these consultations but the PM has shown that she is not the right person to lead.negotiations However, baring an election, she will be the PM for a very considerable period. May I suggest that, with grace she should step aside and should appoint another Secretary of State to be Chief Negotiator in the next couple of weeks to introduce fresh thinking and genuine consultation ?

I understand there was a Jan 21 deadline by which the European Withdrawal Bill had to be enacted in order for us to leave on March 29.
This has now passed. Where does this leave parliament and the country?