Saturday 19 October 2019

Analysis: Mrs May gets a win over rebels - but her negotiating hand is now even weaker

Anti-Brexit demonstrators at the Houses of Parliament as the EU withdrawal bill was debated in the House of Commons. Photo: Chris J Ratcliffe/Getty Images
Anti-Brexit demonstrators at the Houses of Parliament as the EU withdrawal bill was debated in the House of Commons. Photo: Chris J Ratcliffe/Getty Images
John Downing

John Downing

The news from London just might be good for Ireland in the medium term.

On the one hand, Theresa May has won out against potential pro-EU rebels, who have turned towards trying to secure a soft Brexit. But on the other hand, those same rebels appear happy that the prime minister will, in the coming months, give the British parliament "a meaningful vote" on the terms of the EU-UK divorce deal which she may bring back from Brussels.

The dividend for Ireland here appears to be a dilution in the credibility of Mrs May's threats to crash the UK out of the EU without a deal - rather than take what she terms a bad deal. So, she just may have to buckle down and try to get a compromise.

And her ultra-Brexit government colleagues will have to face that reality.

The core Brexit problem is what Irish EU Commissioner Phil Hogan calls the "London-to-London dialogue", which remains totally unresolved. In the same vein, replying to Dáil questions on Brexit yesterday, the Taoiseach again conveyed his Government's frustration at the lack of any unity in the British government on this vexed topic.

"It often feels as though the United Kingdom is negotiating with itself more than with us which makes it rather tricky," he said.

British Prime Minister Theresa May. Photo: Chris J Ratcliffe/Getty Images
British Prime Minister Theresa May. Photo: Chris J Ratcliffe/Getty Images

All day long at Leinster House, there was a sense of looking towards news of developments at the House of Commons in London, where Mrs May faced into a series of crucial votes. It was a classic tilt between government, which traditionally controls foreign policy negotiations, and the MPs, who believe they cannot leave this one to such a diffuse cabinet.

The House of Lords had already pointed the way with 15 crucial amendments to a law which is designed to put all EU statutes into domestic UK law immediately after Brexit happens on March 29, 2019. This is a sensible device to prevent total chaos and it presumes the London parliament will keep or change the existing Brussels laws in fullness of time.

The House of Lords amendments were a move to oblige the London government to come back to parliament for instructions if there is no EU-UK Brexit deal; or if the parliament itself rejects a draft deal. Mrs May was trying not to have her hands tied definitively if the House of Commons copperfastened the Lords' changes.

Mrs May's problem was that up to 20 pro-EU rebels threatened to do just that. So in a climbdown, Mrs May and her ministers agreed to consider key aspects of a central amendment proposed by Tory 'Remainer' Dominic Grieve, a former attorney general. Mr Grieve's amendment was voted down by 324 votes to 298, a majority of 26. Curiously, Grieve ended up voting with the government - against his own amendment. He said he believed MPs will get a future "meaningful vote" anyway.

"We had a personal assurance that we would find a way to address the concerns in the House of Lords when the Bill goes back there. I'm fairly confident we will be able to do that. There is goodwill to secure the protection we are seeking in the event of no deal," he said.

Earlier, a showdown over the UK's future links to the EU customs union appeared to have been averted for now as a compromise amendment was accepted by the government. The compromise meant government has agreed to report to MPs by October on efforts to negotiate a "customs arrangement" with the EU after Brexit.

So, here again, we hear the familiar clang of cans being kicked down the road. Everything appears to now be building until October.

But it remains hard to see how Mrs May can progress her internal wars and emerge with a clear set of realistic demands for the Brexit talks.

Irish Independent

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