‘Brexit day’, 29 March 2019, was the date chosen for the UK to leave the European Union (EU). This had been Prime Minister Theresa May’s ‘solemn promise’ to the British people, endlessly repeated in speeches, conferences and declarations for two years. The government broke this promise because they had been unable to force the withdrawal agreement negotiated with the EU through Parliament. ‘Brexit day’ saw a third defeat for the agreement by 344 votes to 286, a margin of 58 – higher than most commentators expected. This was another humiliating blow for the Prime Minister. It is the chaotic outcome of an irrevocably divided British ruling class facing the most significant strategic decision on the future path of British imperialism.1 DAVID YAFFE reports.
MPs take over control of the Brexit process
On 25 March 2019 Prime Minister Theresa May lost control over the Brexit process. MPs voted by 329 to 302, a majority of 27, in favour of Tory Oliver Letwin’s amendment to a government motion saying how the government would proceed after it had lost a second ‘meaningful vote’ on its Brexit withdrawal deal. The amendment allowed MPs to take control of the Parliamentary schedule on Wednesday 27 March and hold a series of indicative non-binding votes on the way forward for the Brexit process, to see what might secure a majority in the House of Commons. 30 Tory MPs joined with Labour and other opposition parties to pass this amendment. Damian Green, a close ally of the Prime Minister, voted for it. The amended motion passed by 327 votes to 300.
May ordered her ministers to oppose the amendment, arguing that, in effect, it turned Parliament into a parallel government. Three government ministers resigned to back the Letwin amendment. She said that she would not support any proposal that went against the Tory 2017 general election manifesto. That ruled out any support for an agreement which included a customs union or single market membership. May was sticking to her ‘red lines’.
The Prime Minister made it clear that she would only bring her withdrawal deal back to the Commons for a possible third ‘meaningful vote’ when she was confident it would pass. For this to happen she needed to win over significant numbers from Jacob Rees-Mogg’s 60 to 80 plus Tory members of the hard-line pro-Brexit European Research Group (ERG), as well as getting the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), which keeps her minority government in power, back on side. At this point the DUP remained intransigently opposed to the deal ‘as an unacceptable threat to the integrity of the United Kingdom’.
Leading members of the ERG said that they could only vote for her deal if she announced a clear date for stepping down as Prime Minister. The Tory party Chief Whip Julian Smith told her that the only way her deal could get through the Commons would be if she announced a timetable for her departure. While MPs were showing their preferences in the Commons through indicative votes, confirmation came that the Prime Minister had said she would quit, if Parliament backed her Brexit withdrawal deal.
Late afternoon on 27 March, at a packed meeting of Tory MPs in a Commons committee room, May acknowledged that she would have to offer up her job to save her Brexit deal. She told the meeting: ‘I have heard very clearly the mood of the parliamentary party…I know there is a desire for a new approach and new leadership in the second phase of the Brexit negotiations…I am prepared to leave this job earlier than I intended, to do what is right for our country and our party’. This was the signal for numerous careerist, duplicitous MPs, including former Foreign Sec-retary Boris Johnson, who in the past week had announced he was now backing May’s deal, and Environment Secretary Michael Gove, to start to manoeuvre and plot as potential candidates for the soon to be vacant top job.
MPs had put forward 16 proposals for a series of indicative votes in the Commons, with the Speaker John Bercow selecting eight of them for the Commons debate on 27 March. None of the proposals secured a majority. The closest vote was for a proposal by the veteran Tory MP Kenneth Clarke for a permanent and comprehensive customs union with the European Union (EU), with 264 votes in favour and 272 against. A motion tabled by former Labour Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett called for a public vote to confirm any Brexit deal passed by Parliament. It attained 268 votes in favour, the highest of any proposal, with 295 against. Both motions were supported by the Labour Party. Labour’s own motion for a comprehensive customs union and close alignment with the single market received 237 votes in favour with 307 against. The government did not put forward its own deal.
May was forced to give her MPs a free vote, but instructed her 28-strong Cabinet to abstain, to avoid a series of resignations from ministers who wanted to indicate support for alternatives to the government’s negotiated withdrawal deal. Labour whipped its MPs to support its own plan, as well as Clarke’s customs union, and Beckett’s public vote proposals. Splits in the Labour Party on a public vote/second referendum plan were further exposed as 27 Labour MPs voted against Beckett’s motion. Melanie Orr, a Shadow Housing Minister from a leave-voting constituency, resigned to vote against the motion, and three other Shadow Ministers abstained.
After the results of the indicative votes were announced, Letwin said it was ‘a great matter of disappointment’ that no majority had emerged for any of the eight motions. He said that another set of votes would be held on 1 April but that he hoped that the government’s withdrawal deal would be passed before then.2
On the path to meltdown
Two weeks after the humiliating record 230 vote defeat of her withdrawal deal on 15 January 2019,3 May gave way to pressure from her hard-line Eurosceptic MPs and urged MPs to give her a mandate to return to Brussels to make alterations to the Irish ‘backstop’ in the agreement. On 29 January a government-backed motion to replace the Irish ‘backstop’ with ‘alternative arrangements’ was passed by 317 votes to 301. An amendment to that motion by Labour’s Yvette Cooper to timetable a bill to extend the Article 50 deadline, that is to delay the Brexit date, was voted down by 321 votes to 298 with 14 Labour MPs voting against and 12 abstaining. Another non-binding amendment, tabled by Labour’s Jack Dromey and Tory Caroline Spelman, ruling out a no deal Brexit was narrowly passed by 318 votes to 310, removing what May regarded as one of her key bargaining tools in the battles ahead (‘my deal or a no deal Brexit’).
May faced a hostile reception on returning to Brussels a week later in an attempt to renegotiate the terms of the Irish ‘backstop’. President of the European Council Donald Tusk was furious over her failure to offer new ideas to rescue her Brexit deal. In an attack on the UK’s leading Eurosceptics, Tusk said, just 24 hours before meeting the Prime Minister, he had been ‘wondering what a special place in hell looks like for those who promoted Brexit without even a sketch of plans for how to carry it out’.
May suffered another humiliating defeat on 14 February when MPs voted by 303 to 258 – a majority of 45 – against a non-binding motion endorsing the government’s negotiating strategy. The Tory ERG abstained, as it appeared that her strategy ruled out a no deal Brexit. This was a crucial blow to May’s hopes of uniting the Conservative Party around a renegotiated Brexit deal.
The Labour Party was also coming under increasing pressure. Ten members of the Shadow Cabinet threatened to resign if Jeremy Corbyn did not take steps to back attempts to force the government to submit any renegotiated Brexit deal to a referendum when it returns to the Commons. On 18 February seven Europhile MPs left the Labour Party to sit as the Independent Group (TIG) in Parliament. Their spokesperson Chuka Umunna claimed that TIG would be occupying the centre ground vacated by the opposition party under left-wing leader Jeremy Corbyn. Umunna said he and his six colleagues had ‘exhausted our ability to persuade’ Labour to back a second Brexit referendum. A day later they were joined by another Labour MP Joan Ryan. On 20 February, three Europhile Tory MPs –Heidi Allen, Anna Soubry and Sarah Wollaston – said they were leaving the Conservative Party to join TIG because of its ‘shift to the right’ and Theresa May’s ‘disastrous’ handling of its Brexit policy. On 25 February Corbyn was forced to announce that Labour would back a referendum on whether the UK should leave the EU.
On 12 March, after many fruitless journeys to Brussels, Theresa May claimed she had secured, late the previous night, ‘legally binding’ changes to her Brexit deal on the Irish ‘backstop’ that Parliament wanted. She said this even though the President of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker had made it clear, at the previous night’s press conference in Strasbourg, that the EU had not conceded to her central demand. May put this ‘changed’ deal to a second ‘meaningful vote’ in the Commons that day. The Tory Attorney General Geoffrey Cox had to say during the debate on the ‘meaningful vote’ that, while the ‘changes’ reduced the risk of the UK being trapped indefinitely in the Irish ‘backstop’, it did not eliminate it. This was a crushing blow to May’s hopes of passing the deal with just 16 days to Brexit day. The Commons voted overwhelmingly to reject the revamped Brexit deal by 391 votes to 242, a majority against of 149. 75 Tory MPs joined Labour and other opposition parties to reject the deal. May had been humiliated yet again and was rapidly losing control of Brexit.
After this, everything went rapidly downhill for Theresa May. On 13 March a government motion was tabled that ‘declined to approve’ leaving the EU with No Deal on 29 March, while noting that No Deal remained the legal default. An amendment to this motion moved by Yvette Cooper removed references to the 29 March and to No Deal as the legal default. This amendment was narrowly passed by 312 votes to 308. The amended motion therefore rejected No Deal in any circumstances. The government then instructed its MPs to vote against the amended motion, but it was passed by 321 votes to 278, a majority of 43. 17 Tory MPs voted for the amended motion, while 29, including four Cabinet ministers, abstained. The Tory party in Parliament was fragmenting.
On 14 March the Commons then voted by 412 votes to 202 to support the Prime Minister applying to the EU for short delay to Brexit until 30 June, if MPs endorsed her Brexit withdrawal deal at the third time of asking the following week. She warned that if MPs threw out the deal once more there could be a longer extension beyond 30 June requiring Britain to take part in May’s European elections. Eight Cabinet ministers, including Brexit Secretary Steve Barclay and Leader of the House Andrea Leadsom voted against the government’s motion.
On 18 March the government was thrown into constitutional chaos after the Speaker John Bercow blocked the Prime Minister from bringing the Brexit withdrawal deal back to the Commons for a third time unless it had fundamentally changed. Bercow cited precedent dating to 1604 that prevents the reintroduction of a measure that ‘was the same in substance’ to one already voted down in the parliamentary session. Angry Tories claimed the Speaker, who voted remain in the 2016 EU referendum, was deliberately trying to sabotage May’s deal.
Two days later May ineptly directed her frustration and anger at MPs and Parliament. In a short televised, populist statement to the British public from Downing Street on the night of 20 March, she laid the blame at the door of parliament:
‘Of this I am absolutely sure: you the public have had enough. You’re tired of political games and the arcane procedural rows. Tired of MPs talking about nothing else but Brexit, when you have real concerns about our children’s schools, our National Health Service, and knife crime. You want this stage of the Brexit process to be over and done with. I agree. I am on your side.’
She continued: ‘I passionately hope MPs will find a way to back the deal I have negotiated with the EU… But I am not prepared to delay Brexit any further than 30 June.’
This came from a reactionary right-wing demagogue who has done more than anyone to promote austerity policies that have massively damaged children’s schools, under-resourced the National Health Service, created the racist ‘hostile environment’ for migrants and driven millions into unremitting poverty.
She announced that she had written to Donald Tusk to request a short extension of Article 50 up to 30 June to give MPs time to make a final choice.
EU leaders, after gruelling late night talks on 21 March, knocked back May’s proposal and imposed a new timeline to avoid the current deadline of 29 March. Under the new deal the UK would stay in the EU until 12 April if the withdrawal agreement were rejected for a third time. The government would be able to seek a longer extension during that period if it could both ‘indicate a way forward’ and agree to hold European elections in May. In the event that the Prime Minister won support in the Commons for her Brexit deal the UK would stay a member until 22 May to allow the necessary withdrawal deal to be passed. On 27 March the House of Commons debated and voted to approve a draft Statutory Instrument to change the ‘exit day’ in line with the EU’s decision.
On 28 March in the afternoon, the government announced it would hold a new vote on the withdrawal agreement on Friday 29 March, the day the UK was originally due to leave the EU. To get round the Speaker’s ruling that the motion had to be different in substance from the one already voted down, May only put forward the withdrawal agreement to a vote, separating it from the political declaration that governs the UK’s future relations with the EU. A great deal of pressure was put on hard-line Brexiters from the ERG to support the withdrawal agreement with the argument that otherwise they risk throwing their Brexit project away.
MPs rejected Theresa May’s withdrawal agreement, pointedly on ‘Brexit day’. The government lost by a margin of 58 votes. While the number of Tory MPs refusing to support the government had fallen from 75 to 34, only five Labour MPs backed the government and another two abstained. May had gambled and lost. As we go to press, Parliament will try again to see if any proposal put before it on 1 April commands majority support. Labour and other opposition parties have called for a general election. The Prime Minister has said the UK would have to find ‘an alternative way forward’, which was ‘almost certain’ to involve participating in European elections in May. That way forward could see an irrevocably split Tory party tear itself apart.
1 For a discussion of this and the Brexit withdrawal deal see David Yaffe ‘Brexit Ruling class deadlock’ in FRFI 268 February/March 2019 on our website at https://tinyurl.com/yy27pczg