Theresa May Brexit house of commons
(IMAGE: EPA/JESSICA TAYLOR)

The Old Grote pub is a half-timbered holdout in Shoreditch, reached by cutting through Old Winsonby, and left through The Grobbings, just behind Great Pretext. Here, it’s said that Barbara Skelton once slapped Dylan Thomas because he said that Wolf Mankowitz… ooooh arggghhh there’s really no time for local colour.

Today was just your average day in parliament: PM Theresa May effectively resigned in advance, the House of Commons took over from the government in the management of Brexit, and then failed to vote up a single majority alternative, while the speaker all but ruled out a re-presentation of the “government’s” official withdrawal bill.

In the 1100-year history of Anglo-Saxon parliaments, it was quite a day.

May was in for PM’s questions — for once the least interesting part of the parliamentary day — and then disappeared to speak to the 1922 Committee, the backbenchers’ outfit. There, she made her resignation pitch. That was a pitch to the European Research Group (ERG), the pro-Brexit group led by Jacob Rees-Mogg. Rees-Mogg had announced in this morning’s Daily Mail that he would support May’s deal, as otherwise Brexit would slip away. What would Boris do? Well, here he is in this morning’s Torygraph:

This was meant to have been a week of national jubilation. It was meant to be the week when church bells were rung, coins struck, stamps issued and bonfires lit to send beacons of freedom from hilltop to hilltop. This was the Friday when [Thatcher biographer] Charles Moore’s retainers were meant to be weaving through the moonlit lanes of Sussex, half blind with scrumpy, singing Brexit shanties at the tops of their voices and beating the hedgerows with staves …

Despite this, Boris indicated early evening that he would support May’s deal as soon as it was made clear she would resign.

Yet by mid-afternoon it suddenly looked as if this might be moot, with Speaker John Bercow making it clear that he would not allow the PM — would not allow the PM — to re-present the withdrawal bill for a third time, without substantial change to its content. The government (whatever that currently is) had hoped that a formal “notwithstanding” change — which simply registers that there are now alternative formulations available and therefore the old bill is in effect, a new bill — would be permitted. It hasn’t been.

Through the early and mid-evening there were reports of Tory Brexiteers peeling off. The government lost the second vote on the bill by 149 votes, with 75 Tories and the DUP’s 10 voting against. Hopes were rising that a possible victory — getting around 60 Tories, the DUP and some strays — onside were dashed when the DUP announced that they still wouldn’t vote for anything with a backstop in it.

While Tory machinations continued, the lower house got into the meat of setting an agenda for Brexit.

Once the power of the Commons to set its own agenda was fully voted into law, Bercow announced the eight amendments that he had selected from 16 submitted. For the wonks, they were:

Baron amendment (B) — reaffirms a commitment to leave with no deal on April 12.

Boles/Norway-plus (D) — this is Common Market 2.0. The UK becomes part of EFTA/EEA, i.e. part of the single market, plus a customs union (which Norway doesn’t have with the EU), ahead of a full EU-UK free trade agreement. The UK commits to freedom of movement.

Eustice/sub-Norway (H) — in this the UK joins the EEA/EFTA, but with no customs union. This would involve an “overlap” conformation of UK law to EU rules, while transitioning to EFTA — i.e. to single market rules, which govern freedom of movement of goods, services, capital and people. In this one, the UK seeks a “derogation” or exemption from freedom of movement (i.e. immigration). However, it also removes the Irish backstop — which the EU wont agree to.

Clarke/Customs Union (J) — this is tabled by Ken Clarke, the Tories most pro-EU member, and supported by Blairite and Brownite forces in Labour. It locks the UK into a customs union with the EU, but leaves it exempt from non-commercial laws conformation. It’s a sneaky half-Brexit

Labour plan (K) — this is a quarter-Brexit at best, close to the full English remain. It has single market, customs union, the UK aligned with EU social legislation, and other conformations. It keeps EU project funding, but seeks special status/derogation on freedom of movement.  

Cherry/No-Deal choke (L) — this is effectively a way of getting a revoking of article 50, the leaving instrument. Under it, a third failure of May’s deal would trigger a vote on a no deal exit. If a no-deal exit was rejected, the PM would then be required to revoke article 50.

Kyle-Wilson/Beckett/Confirm vote (M) — this one stipulates that any deal parliament votes up must be confirmed by the people in a second referendum.

Fish/Preferential/Canada/? (O) — this seeks a preferential trade agreement with the EU, should there be a no-deal crash-out.

And the winner was… nobody.

As forecast, the non-ranked preference paper vote (i.e. a yes/no response was possible on all eight alternatives), generated eight defeats. Plan J, the customs union, came closest to victory, eight votes short at 265 to 272. Plan M, the people’s vote gained 268 to 295. Labor’s plan K went down on party lines 237 to 307. It was downhill from there: Norway-plus (plan D) lost 188-283; the choke vote (plan L) lost 184-293; no deal (plan B) went down 160-400; sort-of Canada (plan O) 139-422; and the wooden spoon went to Norway (plan H) 65-377.   

What now? The indicative process envisaged a two-stage vote, the second on Monday. May is said to be re-presenting the withdrawal bill on Thursday or Friday, if the speaker lets her. It’s just over two weeks until the new crash-out date. Not only is there no plan, no one really knows who’s in charge. Time for a crafty last one at the Old Grote…..

Peter Fray

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