A series of key Brexit votes tonight could finally nudge the United Kingdom’s chaotic exit from the European Union closer to reality — or plunge its embattled prime minister into further uncertainty.
The divided House of Commons will assess a series of rival Brexit plans from 7pm local time (6am AEDT) after Theresa May’s initial plan was savagely rejected a fortnight ago when a record-breaking 230 MPs voted against it.
She was expected to bring a revised plan to the Commons for MPs to debate, but has instead made only minor changes to the proposal that was so overwhelmingly rejected.
The law states the government must table a so-called “neutral” motion to be voted on — stating simply that the Commons “has considered the statement” made by the prime minister.
Whether or not MPs vote in favour of the motion tabled by Mrs May is essentially meaningless. What is important is that the motion can be amended — giving MPs the right to pass any resolution they want and therefore dictate to the Government what it should do next.
It is not a rerun of the vote on whether or not to approve the Brexit deal that was rejected on January 15. That won’t happen until next month, although the timing will be determined by whatever happens tonight.
Seven amendments will be also voted on after a six-and-half-hour debate that could determine the future of Mrs May.
Speaker John Bercow selected the amendments, including one put forward by Conservative MP Graham Brady, and favoured by Mrs May, which calls for the so-called Northern Irish backstop to be removed and replaced with “alternative arrangements”.
Mr Bercow also selected an amendment proposed by Labour frontbencher Yvette Cooper, which seeks to shift control of Brexit from the government to parliament.
If this amendment is successful it could be shattering for Mrs May as it would give MPs who want to block, delay or renegotiate Brexit a potential legal path to do so.
It would be fiercely opposed by pro-Brexit MPs because it would see Brexit delayed by up to nine months. It is also the preferred option of those who want a second referendum.
Two other amendments are designed to rule out leaving without a deal, while another by former Conservative cabinet minister Dominic Grieve would see the government lose the power to control the order of business on six specific days in February and March.
It’s thought anti-Brexit MPs would take the opportunity to table legislation which could delay or even scrap our EU departure.
A Labour amendment would see a series of additional votes – including potentially another referendum – while an amendment backed by the Scottish National Party proposes “ the people of Scotland should not be taken out of the EU against their will”.
MAY FIGHTS ON
Mrs May has tried to build support for her plan and wants a Commons majority so she can return to Brussels and try to win concessions from other European Union leaders.
She believes her agreement could still succeed if MPs fears over the so-called Irish backstop — which would prevent customs and border controls between Ireland and Northern Ireland — were removed.
That meant supporting the Brady amendment.
“This amendment will give me the mandate I need to negotiate with Brussels. What I’m talking about is a significant and legally binding change to the withdrawal agreement,” she told parliament.
“It will involve reopening the withdrawal agreement, a move for which there is limited appetite among our European partners… but I believe I can secure such a change in advance of our departure from the EU.”
It was important to show the Eu they were united.
“Today we have the chance to show the European Union what it will take to get a deal through this House of Commons, what it will take to move beyond the confusion and division and uncertainty that now hangs over us.”
The prime minister added: “I also accept that this House does not want the deal I put before it, in the form that it currently exists. The vote was decisive and I listened. So the world knows what this House does not want. Today we need to send an emphatic message about what we do want.”
She promised to “bring a revised deal back to this house for a second meaningful vote as soon as we possibly can”, adding that if the deal hasn’t passed by February 14 MPs will have another chance to vote on their favoured plan then.
Commentators believed this could be enough to convince wavering mps to back the Brady amendment and reject the Cooper one, as it still meant MPs could ward off a no-deal next month if a deal wasn’t reached.
CONSEQUENCES OF THE VOTE
The backstop would keep the UK in a customs union with the EU. This would remove the need for checks between the UK’s Northern Ireland and EU member the Republic of Ireland after the UK leaves on March 29 — just two months from now.
If it crashes out with no deal, a hard border is likely and there could be widespread economic shock for the UK with supply chains that fuel its economy disrupted as tariffs and customs checks are imposed and other barriers are introduced between the troubled nation and the 27 remaining EU members.
International Trade Secretary Liam Fox said the amendment offered the best chance for Britain to avoid leaving the EU without a deal on future relations.
“I think we should send the prime minister back to Brussels with a strong mandate to be able to say, ‘If you compromise with us on this one issue, on the backstop, we would be able to a get an agreement,”’ he told the BBC.
It is a high-risk strategy as failure to win enough support could expose her and the government to moves led by Labour MPs to take over the Brexit timetable and potentially delay Brexit.
If there is a delay in leaving the EU, a second referendum or even general election could be needed to help break the impasse.
But it’s far from certain Mrs May’s preferred amendment could win support from a majority in the Commons, or even within the governing Conservatives. And the EU insists the legally binding withdrawal agreement cannot be renegotiated.
Though parliament is overwhelmingly opposed to Mrs May’s deal, MPs are divided over what to do instead — whether to brace for a “no-deal” Brexit or to try and rule it out.
Pro-Brexit supporters within the Conservatives proposed an 11th-hour compromise that calls for the UK to seek a “new backstop” and an extended transition period of almost three years after March 29 so they can work out a permanent new trade deal.
But the EU has already indicated there would be no room for any significant renegotiation regarding the backstop or any other part of the 500-plus pages of the Withdrawal Agreement that was thrashed out over several months.
More to come.
– With The Sun, AP