January 29, 2019
What comes after plan B fails? Plan C, of course. C for cliff-edge
There is, apparently, now a plan C, to be unrolled if or when plan B fails. We would not usually bother you with the latest strangest Conservative brain waves, but it tells one that the game is not over by tonight, no matter how it ends today. Tonight’s votes matter because they will give us further information about possible future majorities, but Brexit is not going to be settled for a while yet.
Theresa May yesterday backed the so-called Brady amendment, which would ask the government to revisit the backstop, but crucially allow the government some wiggle-room on how to do this. The reason the amendment might fail regardless is lack of trust. Hardline Conservatives are suspicious about the possibility of being duped by a meaningless assurance in the form of what is known in EU legal jargon as a codicil - a side letter. As the Daily Telegraph reports, the backbenchers doubt that this can be made legally water-tight. Their plan C would consist of a more straight-forward extension of the transitional period with a reworded backstop clause. We doubt plan C will be acceptable to the EU, but we warn readers not to jump to any premature conclusions by listening to statements from Brussels, like yesterday’s reported comments from Sabine Weyand. The views that will matter in the end will be those of the leaders themselves, not their stated views today but the views they will hold in the final days and hours before the deadline. May needs to take this to the brink, and she needs to be willing to jump. It is her only chance to secure meaningful concessions.
There is a logic in the amendment brought by Yvette Cooper in that it tries to prevent that from happening. But it also a high-risk strategy that might backfire with the electorate, and that might make a hard Brexit more likely in May or June. Even a hard Brexit requires a timetable extension. If you do it, May or June are better months than the holiday seasons of April or July.
If Plan B and C fail, it is possible but not certain that a cross-party majority would form to ratify the withdrawal treaty as it stands. It might be supported by a codicil stating that both sides have the understanding that the backstop period cannot be infinite. And the political declaration will foresee, but not prejudice, alternative choices for the future relationship.
If this, too, were to fail it would be folly to suggest that no-deal is off the table. If there is no parliamentary majority for a customs union, then there surely is none for outright revocation. We admire the doggedness of the second-referendum campaigners along with their ability to punch above their weight in the media. We believe they are complacent in their strategy to run the down the clock themselves, hoping that a second referendum would remain after a process of elimination. That game would always favour a hard Brexit, which is the legal default position.
The majority of the Labour Party MPs will support the Cooper amendment, which would introduce legislation to allow an extension of Art 50. But the vote is expected to be tight. One Labour frontbencher, Jon Trickett, said it would send a wrong message to voters, that the Labour Party was ready to reopen the referendum. The Guardian writes that it is possible that all amendments fail tonight, leaving the UK with no exit strategy other than a hard Brexit.
The FT writes that it was May’s strategy to split her opponents first, which tonight’s vote might achieve, even if it does not result in an outright victory. Her decision to support the Brady amendment was not co-ordinated in the cabinet. There will be another meaningful vote - whatever that means - in mid-February, amendable. The idea to make it amendable is intended to persuade wavering Tory MPs not to support the Cooper amendment tonight since they will have the chance to do so mid-February.
We think it is clear that May is running down the clock, which is probably her best strategy. The closer it gets to Brexit day, the smaller the lever of parliament will become. MPs cannot simply call for a delay. Legislation would have to be passed in time for this to happen, and for now the government remains in charge of the legislative timetable.
What May needs tonight is for the Cooper amendment to fail. Ideally, the Brady amendment passes. But if Cooper succeeds and Brady fails, it will be hard for her to rebuild a viable strategy. She will then either comply with Cooper and pass the baton to parliament, or find other ways to frustrate the Cooper amendment.