What Just Happened With Brexit?
An objective piece of writing that is designed to inform
What just happened?
The latest chapter in the drama that is Brexit was penned this week. Theresa May announced on Tuesday that she had finally managed to negotiate a Draft Withdrawal Agreement with the European Union. A cabinet meeting was thus held on Wednesday and later that day a press conference on the steps of Downing Street. There she claimed that the 'collective decision of the cabinet was that the government agreed on the draft agreement'. All seemed well for the Prime Minister. This deal has been a year and a half in the making and has not been short of controversy in that time. Unfortunately, all was not well and there were early signs of difficulty. Leaks showed that the cabinet meeting was heated and notable Tory backbenchers had already started to voice their dismay. The announcement also emerged in the light of Jo Johnson's resignation on the 9th from his position as Minister of State for Transport. Johnson, the MP for Orpington, called the direction in which Brexit was heading 'a failure of British statecraft on a scale unseen since the Suez Crisis'. In a longer lens, it also followed the departure of key Cabinet Brexiteers over Chequers in July. David Davis and Boris Johnson's resignations were an early sign of the same discontent felt by Jo Johnson. They cited concerns over the 'illusion' of parliamentary sovereignty and Britain's potential status as a 'colony' of the EU.
However, it was Thursday morning that events really started to unravel. By 12:30pm a total of five ministers and secretaries had resigned, including the Northern Ireland Minister (Shailesh Vara) and the Brexit Secretary (Dominic Raab). These were greatly embarrassing for the PM who had, only the day before, announced that she had the backing of the Cabinet. It also coincided with May's address of the House of Commons where she would argue in favour of her deal.
It was during this parliamentary sitting that Jacob Rees-Mogg alluded to a potential Vote of No Confidence in the PM.
What is the 1922 Committee?
The committee is formed of Tory backbench MPs and has the power to trigger a Vote of No Confidence in the leader of the Conservative Party. Formally, it is responsible for communicating the grievances of backbench MPs to the Cabinet and helping new Tory MPs when they arrive for the first Time in Parliament.
Mr Rees-Mogg later chaired a meeting with the European Research Group and addressed the media on the steps where May first spoke to the public as PM way back in July 2016. Here Rees-Mogg defended his letter to the Chair of the 1922 Committee calling for a Vote of No Confidence and he also took this time to make it clear that he himself would not stand for PM. It is, at the point of publishing, unclear whether enough signatures have been amassed to trigger a vote of no confidence in the Conservative Leader - at present the publicly known tally stands at 23 out of the 48 that would be needed to start the process.
Why the resignations? What does the Withdrawal Agreement say?
The Draft Withdrawal Agreement is a 585 page document that details how the UK is going to leave the EU in March 2019. Most of it concerns the establishment of a Transition Period whereby businesses can continue to operate as usual until the UK and EU have negotiated the final settlement - the EU refuses to discuss future trading arrangements until the UK has formally left. This 'transition period' will last for 21 months but can be extended by mutual consent in a Joint Committee. During this time the UK will have to be completely aligned to all EU legislation and will continue to be under the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice. However, this is not considered to be the controversial part and most agree that it is a necessary step to a smooth exit.
The controversy mostly arises surrounding the 'Backstop'. This is an agreement that ensures there is no 'hard border' between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. A hard border is accepted by all to be unacceptable as 'The Troubles' are still very much within living memory for most Irish people - see Why Northern Ireland is a Headache for Brexit. This 'Backstop' will come into force if no deal has been struck and there is not an extension of the 'Transition Period'. The 'Backstop' would create a nationwide customs union across the UK that largely aligns with the EU's tariffs allowing goods to pass smoothly between the EU and the UK without being checked and vice versa. However, Northern Ireland would have to be more closely alighted to the EU to facilitate a smooth border between it and the Republic of Ireland. This would mean that certain goods would have to be checked in Northern Ireland before entering the rest of the UK, effectively creating a border in the Irish Sea - 'The Backstop'. This is completely unacceptable to most of the strict Brexiteers and the DUP, both of whom claim that it could lead to the 'breakup of the United Kingdom' and that it violates Theresa May's promise to Northern Ireland. What is more, if the 'Backstop' comes into effect, it can only be withdrawn from if there is mutual consent from both the EU and the UK. Anger around these key point is starkly reflected in the resignation letters of important MPs:
Are Theresa May's days numbered?
As already mentioned our PM has now been subject to ten resignations over Brexit since July and faces the prospect of a leadership challenge. However, May has shown herself to be calm in the face of embarrassment and she firmly informed reporters that she will 'see it through'. May also took part in a Q&A session on LBC radio the next morning allowing anyone to ring in and ask questions about the Withdrawal Agreement. One must also note that she has quickly found MPs to fill the empty seats, with Amber Rudd returning to the cabinet as Work and Pensions Secretary and Stephen Barclay being promoted to Brexit Secretary, having previously been Minister of State at the Department of Health and Social Care.
The efforts to trigger a No Confidence Vote also seemed to have stumbled at the first hurdle, with only 23 confirmed to have written in. It seems that maybe Jacob Rees-Mogg has jumped the gun. We will only find out Monday or Tuesday. However, what is certain is that, if Mrs May losses a vote, there could be weeks, if not months of turmoil as the Conservative party selects a new leader. But should she survive, her political position will have been strengthened not weakened by the vote because a core of support for her will have been shown in Conservative Party. What's more, according to Conservative Party rules, she will be free from any further challenges for a whole year.
Theresa May has also managed to hold on to some powerful Brexiteers in her cabinet. Michael Gove and Liam Fox have both publicly endorsed the PM - though not the deal itself. Andrea Leadsom, Penny Mordaunt and Chris Grayling are also still present in cabinet. It is assumed that they have remained in order to haggle some concessions from May's deal - though quite how this can be achieved is unclear given that the EU has shown hostility to the idea of renegotiation.
The way in which the resignations happened is also under scrutiny. For the ministers to resign after the PM has publicly informed the media that she has the backing of the cabinet has been criticised, with some conservative MPs lauding the action as unprofessional and done only to maximise drama. Also, the irony of the minister in charge of Brexit resigning over a deal that he has ostensibly negotiated has not been missed.
Will the deal get through Parliament?
As it stands, most estimates see Parliament rejecting the current Withdrawal Agreement by a large majority. At this time it is assumed that those who have written in a letter of no confidence will not vote in favour - at least 23 to 48+ MPs against. It is also unlikely that Labour will endorse the deal and could impose a whip on the vote - 257 more MPs against. The Liberal Democrats will definitely oppose it given they support an 'Exit from Brexit' - 12 further MPs against. Equally, the SNP firmly oppose the deal and believe that if there can be a different deal for Northern Ireland then there can also be one for Scotland - 35 extra MPs against. This alone is enough to reach the 320 votes needed to reject the deal. Other estimates say the support for the deal in the commons is much lower.
This particular chapter has been one of the more bloody so far and it is unclear whether the next chapter has begun. The weekend will be a period of consultation for most MPs who should now have a chance to fully read the agreement and speak to their constituents. As it stands however, the agreement does not look like it will pass through Parliament, the Vote of No Confidence is still possible, and who knows maybe a General Election by Christmas or a People's Vote by Easter. Or maybe, Theresa May will be able to pull it off and reveal a rabbit from her hat. We shall see. But if this week could be summed up in one word, it would be: uncertain.
Written by Leon Davies
Studies History with Politics at the University of Buckingham.