23 Jan 2019

Deadlock over Brexit 'plan B'

From Nine To Noon, 9:08 am on 23 January 2019

A week after Parliament rejected Theresa May's proposed divorce deal with the European Union, the British Prime Minister is once again seeking parliamentary support before going back to Brussels.

Earlier this week she unveiled a revised Brexit strategy, but critics of the latest plan say it appears to differ little from the one overwhelmingly rejected by the House of Commons last week.

Jeremy Corbyn and Theresa May in the Commons on 17 Janaury 2018 as MPs debate a motion of no confidence.

Photo: AFP / Jessica Taylor / UK Parliament

But a former staffer for May says she is playing a high stakes game. She is gambling that MPs will view her revised plan more favourably as remainers are fearful of a crash out, no deal scenario in March and hard line Brexiteers worry softer exit options may follow another commons defeat for her ‘plan B’ withdrawal agreement.

Chris Wilkins, who was May’s director of strategy and chief speechwriter between August 2016 and Autumn 2017, says she is determined to deliver on what she sees as the will of the people.

“They [Conservative Brexiteers] are starting to see their dream is slipping away and starting to change their view a little bit.

“She has a couple of things on her side here, one the clock is ticking, the law states the UK will leave the EU on the 29th of March and that is set in stone.”

Wilkins says that 29 March cliff edge looks to be sharpening minds in parliament. 

“In many ways it seems outlandish, when you’ve faced a defeat in the realms that she did last week by 230 votes to imagine you’re going to be able to make that up some way is somewhat ambitious.”

There is still an opportunity, he says, for May to go back to European member states and ask for some movement on the sticking point of the Irish border backstop.

He says while this might be largely “political theatre” it might give MPs who voted against the deal last week a ladder to climb down from.

“For them to say ‘actually it’s imperfect, it’s not what we wanted, but in the interests of delivering on the referendum in 2016 we may yet come round to this and embrace what is an imperfect deal’.”

On the Labour side it might also give opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn some wriggle room, he says.

“Jeremy Corbyn may yet allow tacitly some of his backbenchers to vote with the government and that’s because he ultimately wants Brexit to happen, but he doesn’t want his fingerprints on it, he doesn’t want to be seen to be supporting it, because that splits his vote.”

The looming cliff edge is integral to her strategy, he says.

“She sees people moving in her direction, because on the one side they see time running out and on the other Brexit getting softer and it may just be that her deal is the best anyone’s going to get,” Wilkins says.  

“This is a high stakes game the Prime Minister is playing here.”

There are also interesting moves afoot in Parliament with unprecedented levels of cross-bench activity, he says.

Next week the commons will vote on a series of amendments that backbenchers have tabled; one of those is a cross-bench amendment between Conservative and Labour members that the default position should not be to crash out in March and the government must extend Article 50 to get more negotiating time.  

“That has a very good chance of passing,” Wilkins says.

Similar amendments have been tabled on the UK entering a permanent customs union with the EU.

“There are enough backbenchers that believe that is the way forward, it is official Labour Party policy that is what should happen, the DUP who hold the balance of power here have indicated they can live with that arrangement as long as Northern Ireland is not treated any differently to the UK.”

Wilkins believes that is where the UK will end up, in a voluntary customs union with the EU.

“There are a lot of people in parliament who think we should voluntarily enter a customs union because it allows for tariff free trade to continue but also it solves the problem of the hard border in Northern Ireland.”

However such a deal could split the ruling Conservative Party, he says.

“There are many people who think a deal like that isn’t the kind of Brexit that they voted for and we may see a historic split and that’s what the Prime Minister is seeking to avoid.

“But there is probably a majority in parliament for that and it may be that by hook or by crook that is where we end up as a country.”

Britain's opposition Labour party leader Jeremy Corbyn listens as Prime Minister Theresa May makes a statement to the House of Commons in London on January 21, 2019, on changes to her Brexit withdrawal agreement.

Britain's opposition Labour party leader Jeremy Corbyn listens as Prime Minister Theresa May makes a statement to the House of Commons in London on January 21, 2019, on changes to her Brexit withdrawal agreement. Photo: AFP

But what if May’s gambit fails? Wilkins says the cabinet is deeply divided on crashing out of the EU with no deal.

“There is a huge discussion going in within the Cabinet about whether that default position of crashing out on March 29 is really sustainable, probably half the cabinet are saying they can’t live with that and if the government endorses that position they will walk out and there will be a series of resignations.

“I think you have to believe that ultimately the government won’t allow that to happen, they will find a way firstly to extend the Article 50 process and will find a way to do a deal and I think this idea of a permanent customs union is the deal that can be done.”

He says May is unlike any politician he has worked with.

“She doesn’t let anything get to her, she doesn’t read newspapers, she doesn’t follow the media, she just focusses on getting on with the job. A lot of politicians care about how the media talks about them but she just doesn’t.

“She feels very keenly that she is on the side of the people here and even though she voted the other way, she voted to remain, as soon as the result came in she understood people had spoken clearly about what they wanted.”

The British parliament is expected to debate and vote on the Prime Minister's Brexit 'plan B' on 29 January.

Related stories

  • Brexit showdown 'an elaborate game of chicken'
  • Chris Wilkins was Director of Strategy and Chief Speechwriter to Prime Minister Theresa May between August 2016 to Autumn 2017, during this time, he wrote the Prime Minister's major policy speeches on Brexit, and had a front row seat in discussions about the Brexit negotiating strategy.