Just how crazy has Brexit driven the British political system? Usually, prime ministers resign when their agenda fails. Theresa May has now formally offered to resign if her Brexit deal passes — and her majority coalition likely still won’t be able to confirm it:
Theresa May has played her final desperate card to tame the Brexit rebels in her warring party, by promising to sacrifice her premiership if they back her twice-rejected Brexit deal.
The beleaguered prime minister, whose authority has been shattered by the double rejection of her deal and the humiliation of a delay to Brexit day, made the offer to Tory backbenchers at a packed meeting in parliament. …
May told her party’s backbench 1922 Committee: “I have heard very clearly the mood of the parliamentary party. I know there is a desire for a new approach – and new leadership – in the second phase of the Brexit negotiations, and I won’t stand in the way of that.”
She added: “I am prepared to leave this job earlier than I intended in order to do what is right for our country and our party.”
It’s not as if Parliament has coalesced around a practical alternative — or any alternative, for that matter. In an open vote with Parliament controlling the floor, MPs shot down eight potential options for dealing with Brexit apart from May’s plan. The proposal that came closest was a “soft” Brexit that would leave the UK in the EU customs union and trade regulations, which lost by eight votes. A proposal for a second referendum, which hundreds of thousands demanded in a protest last weekend, lost by 27 votes.
May’s leadership team claimed victory, of sorts:
On a day when Parliament thought it would take control of Brexit, May and her deal still dominated.
Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay told the House that members’ go-nowhere voting demonstrated that “there are no easy options here. There is no simple way forward.”
Barclay said the best deal on offer was still the one May negotiated, and he urged the House to reconsider it. “If we do not do that, then there are no guarantees about where this process will end,” he warned.
If that’s victory, it’s on the Pyrrhic side. The defeats of the other alternatives might open the door for reconsideration of May’s deal, especially with her pledge to remove herself from further negotiations. That Withdrawal Agreement comes up for a third vote tomorrow, but Commons speaker John Bercow initially left it a mystery if it would be in order. Bercow insisted that the Commons cannot return to a measure that has already had a vote simply because some MPs might have changed their minds. The “indicative votes” failure yesterday does not change the measure itself, Bercow argued today, and insisted that “conventions exist for a purpose”:
The validity of a convention or otherwise is not dependent upon a head count at a particular time. The whole point of having a rule is because it is judged to be of value, and the fact that somebody suddenly thinks it isn’t convenient doesn’t mean that it should simply be disregarded.
After MP Julian Lewis described a meeting in which two colleagues were weeping at the thought of having to defy May a third time, Bercow seized on the point to remind Parliament why the rule has survived for 415 years:
There are a number of reasons for the long-established convention that the house is not asked to decide the same question more than once in the same session … [The point Lewis makes was not one of the original reasons for the rule but it is] a powerful reinforcement of the continuing case for the convention. I think he’s made an extremely important point and it is something on which colleagues at all levels need to reflect.
The motion changed significantly afterward, though. Instead of calling it the final version of Brexit, May’s trying to sell it as the launching pad for any kind of Brexit under future leadership by splitting off the political declaration for a separate vote:
No 10 is believed to be attempting to get MPs to approve just the withdrawal agreement governing how the UK will leave the EU, while setting aside the political declaration that governs the future relationship.
The hope is that some MPs from other parties could switch sides if they are not voting on the political declaration, which has been rejected by Labour because it does not say the UK will remain in a customs union.
May’s de facto deputy, David Lidington, appeared to hint at this by urging MPs to back the withdrawal agreement irrespective of their opinions about the latter.
“If you believe in delivering the referendum result by leaving the EU with a deal then it is necessary to back the withdrawal agreement,” he told the British Chambers of Commerce conference in London.
“Whether a particular MP wants the final destination to look like Norway or look like Canada or look like the proposals in the Chequers white paper, the starting point is the withdrawal agreement itself.”
The split of the political declaration from the WA did satisfy Bercow and get a third vote on the latter, which May has scheduled for tomorrow. It might satisfy enough MPs across party lines to ensure some kind of orderly Brexit and gain more time to work out the rest of the details. If the WA passes Parliament, Article 50 gets delayed until May 22nd, but if not, the UK has to exit on April 12th. The crash-out option has enough MPs concerned now that they are rethinking opposition to the WA as long as all other options remain open.
Not concerned enough, at least on the Labour side, as it turns out. Labour leadership has already rejected the idea to split the two, calling it “desperate”:
Labour will oppose any “desperate” attempt by Theresa May to split a crucial vote on her Brexit deal in two, Sir Keir Starmer has said. …
He continued: “I want to clear – Labour will not support this latest desperate attempt by the PM. To now to split the withdrawal agreement and political declaration would leave us with the blindest of blindfold Brexits.
“Labour will not countenance that.”
Now that May has split the WA from the political declaration, she can press the question one last time. That may not win many Labourites, but May has to hope that she won’t need more than a few. Brexit hardliners Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg are backing May’s resignation-for-WA offer, although BoJo doesn’t think it’ll work anyway. If the DUP can be convinced that the alternatives to the backstop are all worse, perhaps May will finally get Parliament to vote to let her quit.
— Reuters Top News (@Reuters) March 28, 2019
Back to the drawing board.