Parliament just responded with a resounding “nope,” voting down the motion 303 to 258, and leaving the Brexit impasse as intractable as ever.
May’s defeat was mostly symbolic, and doesn’t change anything practically. But her loss was still remarkable — and yet, somehow, not all that surprising given the complete and utter shambles that the Brexit debate is in.
Most critically for the prime minister, the vote undercuts her pitch to the European Union that if it offers concessions on the Brexit deal — specifically, renegotiating the so-called “Irish backstop” — she’ll finally be able to rally enough support in Parliament to get a Brexit agreement passed.
But the defeat of her government’s motion — led by pro-Brexit members of her own Conservative Party, no less — made it clear that May is still struggling to get her party to back a Brexit deal and likely won’t be able to even if the EU were to offer some concessions.
May’s government lost this vote on Thursday because the hardcore Brexiteers — those who really want to abandon the EU and all of its rules — in her party abstained from voting.
They’re angry with May because, they argued, her motion potentially rules out a no-deal Brexit and weakens the UK’s negotiating power when it comes to the Irish backstop.
The Irish backstop is an insurance policy to prevent border checks between Northern Ireland (which is part of the UK) and the Republic of Ireland (which is an independent country that’s also an EU member state) if the UK and EU can’t agree on the terms of a future trade relationship after Brexit.
That’s because an open border is a key part of the 1998 peace agreement that ended decades of conflict in the region. There are serious concerns that if customs checks and other barriers go up on the border as a result of the UK leaving the EU — and thus no longer being part of the EU customs union and single market that allows for free movement of goods and people — that tensions could reignite.
The backstop, then, basically says that if EU and UK struggle to agree to the terms of their future relationship after Brexit, the UK will simply stay in close alignment with EU customs regulations. That way, both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland would be operating under the same rules and regulations for trade and thus there wouldn’t be a need for customs checks at the border.
The hardcore Brexiteers hate this, though, and see it as trapping the UK in a relationship with the EU indefinitely, and so they don’t want any sort of binding backstop in any Brexit deal.
Brexiteers also argued that the prime minister’s approach to the negotiations suggested she’s ruling out a no-deal Brexit. A no-deal Brexit means the UK would leave the EU without any plan or arrangements in place, a scenario that would deliver a catastrophic blow to the economy and trade. May actually hasn’t ruled out a no-deal Brexit, but she’s expressed her desire to avoid that scenario and reach an agreement instead. Brexiteers, meanwhile, believe a no-deal Brexit should remain an option.
The Brexiteers’ protest on Thursday doesn’t change the fact that the EU has insisted that the backstop isn’t renegotiable anyway. May has tried to get the EU to budge on that position by making the case that if it gives just a few concessions on the backstop issue, she could get the necessary support in Parliament to pass a Brexit deal.
But this latest vote proves her party is as fractured as ever, and it’s unlikely the EU, even if it were willing to tweak the backstop, would be able to offer anything that would appease the most hardline members of May’s party.
That’s even less of an incentive for the EU to negotiate. Which means, yet again, that the impasse prevails and the UK is still barreling toward the March 29 Brexit deadline. If no deal has been passed by then, the UK drops out of the EU and chaos will ensue.
There will be at least one critical pitstop along the way: May has promised that Parliament will get another chance to vote on February 27. Members of Parliament may be able to take more control of the Brexit process then, with just one month to go.