January 28, 2019
Battle of the amendments
There will be another important Brexit vote tomorrow. The thing to look out for is the relative performance of two conflicting amendments. Both are unrealistic in their own right, but the votes could prove to be important pointers of what to expect afterwards.
The Murrison/Brady amendment seems completely absurd at first sight. Brought by two Tory backbench MPs and supported by the government, it is calling for the Irish backstop to expire by 2021 or to be removed from the withdrawal agreement altogether. There is, of course, zero chance that the EU will accept this. But Theresa May's strategy is to produce a united front of her party along with a firm indication that there is at least one version of Brexit that commands a majority in the House of Commons. She wants to present the EU with a take-it or leave-it choice, and for this she needs a majority.
The second amendment is the Cooper/Boles one to force a Brexit delay of nine months - timing negotiable - if there is no deal by February 26. As of this morning it is unclear this morning whether it will command a majority. We presume it will, but some Labour MPs expressed caution over the weekend and wanted to consult with their constituencies first. May herself is very keen for this amendment to fail because it otherwise it would double-cross her negotiating strategy of taking the issue to the brink. Her deputy, David Lidington, wrote in the Observer that there is no need for this amendment in any case, as MPs will be given another chance to vote on a Brexit delay at the end of February.
The best outcome for the government is for Murrison/Brady to pass and for Cooper/Boles to fail. In that case, May could play a hardball negotiating game during February, withholding agreement until the EU moves on the backstop. If the EU does not, the situation would revert to parliament. In the absence of an alternative majority for any positive course of action - other than a delay - the risk of a hard Brexit is real.
In contrast, if Cooper/Boles passes, and Murrison/Brady fails, we will be in a more uncertain scenario. In this one, we see zero chance of Theresa May achieving any negotiating successes. The Times reports this morning that Conservatives and moderate Labourites would at this stage rally around a softer version of Brexit - customs union or Norway. They would still pass May's negotiated withdrawal agreement. What would change is the political declaration.
It is possible for both amendments to pass, or both amendments to fail. It is hard to predict outcomes these days. The two scenarios that seem to have lost some traction in recent days are the second referendum and the cliff-edge Brexit - though both remain on the list of possibilities. We are hearing, especially from Labour MPs in leave-voting constituencies, that the attitudes of voters have shifted markedly since Christmas - in favour of a hard-Brexit or, rather, a non-delayed Brexit.
We see a short delay in the timetable as inevitable under any scenario. Alex Barker has a good story in the FT this morning, discussing various delay scenarios. The one we see as most likely is what one diplomat described as a short but extendable delay - the second, longer, extension being subject to a referendum, for example. We agree that the EU will not want to be blamed for triggering a hard Brexit, which remains a significant probability if parliament fails to agree an alternative. In this case, there will still be an extension, but with the clear purpose to give both sides time to prepare for a no-deal Brexit.