With Brexit 17 days away, UK Prime Minister Theresa May has lost a second meaningful vote on her proposed withdrawal agreement.
The withdrawal agreement, materially identical to the document which lost a House of Commons vote by an historic majority of 230 in January, again failed to gain the approval of the British Parliament. 242 MPs voted for the implementation of May’s agreement; while 391 voted against it: a defeat margin of 149 votes. There were no amendments.
May flew to Strasbourg late last night to continue negotiations with European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, returning with the promise of further reassurances on the Irish backstop; but the legal instrument the Prime Minister delivered to MPs contained no new additions or amendments to the withdrawal agreement, which still makes no provision for the unilateral termination of the backstop. Where Leave-supporting MPs had hoped a concrete deadline would be imposed on the backstop, the legal instrument only clarified the circumstances under which the backstop option could be triggered and, after its implementation, removed.
The legal judgement on the instrument issued by Attorney General Geoffrey Cox today noted: “[T]he legally binding provisions of the joint instrument and the content of the unilateral declaration reduce the risk that the United Kingdom could be indefinitely and involuntarily detained within the protocol’s provisions at least in so far as that situation had been brought about by the bad faith or want of best endeavours of the EU.” The value of the pound, which had risen last night after May declared she had reached a new deal with Juncker, fell sharply again after the publication of Cox’s advice.
The self-styled “star chamber” of lawyers belonging to the rightwing European Research Group emphasised that the terms of the new document “do not materially change the position the UK would find itself in if it were to ratify the withdrawal agreement… In the light of our own legal analysis and others, we do not recommend accepting the government’s motion today.”
In the period between the first failure of the withdrawal agreement two months ago and this evening’s second meaningful vote, May pledged to hold cross-party meetings in order to determine ways to gain MPs’ support. In a controversial move, she promised a Stronger Towns Fund totalling £1.6 billion (€1.86 billion) to be allocated to the UK’s most deprived regions; the fund was widely denounced by the areas’ MPs as a transparent attempt to buy votes.
A Labour amendment in favour of a second referendum, originally set to be put forward today, was temporarily postponed last week in order to avoid diverting attention from the failure of May’s deal: former Labour director of communications Alastair Campbell wrote in the Guardian: “[T]he public needs to see very clearly that even though the ticking clock may have reduced the majority against May’s deal from the stratospheric level 230 [votes] of January, it continues to lack the parliamentary support needed to go through. The focus really must be on her deal and her deal alone, so that its full weaknesses, and the failure to win the alternative arrangements she promised, can be debated and exposed.”
Parliament will vote again tomorrow on whether to leave the EU without a deal in place. If the option of a no-deal Brexit is not accepted by MPs, there will be a further vote on Thursday on a potential extension of Article 50.