18 October 2019

Tomorrow the House of Commons will sit for the first time on a Saturday since 1982. MPs will have the opportunity to approve or reject the revised Brexit deal, which was published by the Government and the European Commission yesterday.

In a press conference on Thursday evening, the Prime Minister has said he was confident that the Agreement will win the support of MPs, but the challenge of getting the deal through the Commons is considerable.

The DUP have confirmed that the party’s ten MPs will vote against the deal – a major disappointment for the Government in itself – while the party’s Brexit spokesman, Sammy Wilson, said this morning that he was encouraging Conservative MPs to do so as well. A number of the so-called Spartans of the European Research Group (ERG) have already indicated they will vote for the Johnson plan, irrespective of the DUP’s position, but every single vote will count.

The other significant group that Johnson will need are the Conservative rebels who had the Whip withdrawn after joining the opposition parties in taking control of the Parliamentary timetable to facilitate the Benn Act. There were 21 of these MPs originally, but several will not vote for the deal including Sam Gyimah, who has now joined the Liberal Democrats.

Meanwhile, the opposition parties are all officially opposed to the Government’s Brexit deal. In a series of tweets yesterday, the Labour party’s Brexit spokesman, Sir Keir Starmer, set out his case against it, pointing out that ‘the political direction of travel under Johnson is to a distant economic relationship with the EU.’

It is certainly the case that the Prime Minister sees divergence from the EU as a potential advantage of Brexit: as he put it in his August letter to Donald Tusk, ‘that is the point of our exit.’ It is also true that Johnson challenged the idea of the backstop as a bridge to a close future relationship with the EU. As Open Europe’s explainer on the revised Withdrawal Agreement has pointed out, the backstop has now effectively been replaced with a front stop allowing the UK, including Northern Ireland, to pursue an independent trade policy immediately after the transition period. But this comes with the drawback of checks in the Irish sea.

While the critics of Johnson’s new deal may not agree with his vision of Brexit, this was the inevitable direction of Conservative Party policy after Theresa May’s departure. What is also true is that the new Agreement does not actually rule out a closer relationship with the EU if that is what a future Government chooses to negotiate.

Even if Johnson can get the support of MPs to pass his deal by 31 October (or shortly afterwards), the Government will still need to go to the country before trade talks with the EU can begin in earnest. Without a working majority – and now without the goodwill of the DUP – the Government cannot continue for much longer without a General Election.

Passing a deal before then would mean that Remain is taken off the table, but the future relationship is still open for debate.

News in Brief

1. UK and EU reach new Brexit deal
The UK Government and European Commission yesterday published a revised Withdrawal Agreement and Political Declaration, which will be voted on by the House of Commons on Saturday. Open Europe has published an explainer of the new deal.

A member of the Conservative European Research Group (ERG), Andrew Bridgen, told the Today Programme that the “vast majority” of the ERG – many of whom voted against the previous deal three times – would “come to the conclusion that this deal is tolerable.” Meanwhile, the Democratic Unionist Party Brexit spokesman, Sammy Wilson, said the party would “absolutely” vote against the deal.

Separately, the former First Minister of Northern Ireland, David Trimble, who was highly critical of the backstop in the previous Withdrawal Agreement, said in a statement this morning, “Yesterday’s agreement is a great step forward.  Whilst, previously, the people of Northern Ireland were to have an agreement imposed on them, now we have a mechanism for the consent of the people of Northern Ireland.  This is fully in accordance with the spirit of the Good Friday Agreement.”

2. Queen’s speech sets out Governments legislative agenda
The Queen’s speech on Monday, which sets out the Government’s new legislative agenda, said, “My Government’s priority has always been to secure the United Kingdom’s departure from the European Union on 31 October. My Government intends to work towards a new partnership with the European Union, based on free trade and friendly cooperation.” The speech proposed new Bills on fisheries, agriculture, trade, immigration, resident EU citizens’ rights, financial services and the legal sectors.

Separately, the Chancellor, Sajid Javid, announced plans to hold a Budget on Wednesday 6 November 2019.

3. Gibraltar election won by socialist and liberal coalition
An alliance of socialist and liberals won a third consecutive term in Gibraltar’s General Election, held yesterday, with the GSLP-Liberal Alliance winning 52.5% of the vote, followed by the social democrats on 25.6% and centre-left Together Gibraltar on 20.5%. Fabian Picardo will continue as Chief Minister.

Elsewhere, Poland’s governing Law and Justice (PiS) party won the country’s parliamentary election with 43.8% of the vote, giving it a slightly increased majority.

Meanwhile, after the collapse of Romania’s Social Democrat administration, the official opposition party has been asked to form a government.

Open Europe in the media

Open Europe’s Dominic Walsh outlined the key changes between the new Protocol on Northern Ireland and that negotiated by Theresa May in an article for the Spectator’s Coffee House blog. He writes, “The new deal is different in both concept and substance to Theresa May’s deal – and to the EU’s original proposal for a Northern Ireland-only backstop. In fact, in many ways, the new arrangements for Northern Ireland are more of a front-stop than a backstop.” Walsh’s “track change” document comparing the two Protocols in full was also reproduced in the Spectator.

In an article earlier this week, Open Europe’s Stephen Booth wrote for ConservativeHome that the proposed customs regime might have attractions to Unionists in Northern Ireland, arguing, “Northern Ireland would be subject to a trade policy governed by Westminster in consultation with Stormont, rather than Brussels in consultation with Dublin,” adding, “it would provide a much more durable relationship between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK than under the backstop.” Booth also discussed the proposed customs arrangements in an interview for BBC Newsnight last Friday.

In his weekly column for the Telegraph, Open Europe’s Pieter Cleppe outlines the “wins” that the UK Government secured in the negotiations, as well as the “concessions” it made. In a separate piece this week, also for the Telegraph, Cleppe argued that many EU member states are not fully prepared for a potential No Deal exit, concluding, “a flurry of legislation and preparedness notices from the EU mask alarming holes in its No Deal planning.”

Elsewhere, Anthony Egan was quoted in Spanish daily La Razon on the UK politics of the Brexit negotiations, while David Shiels spoke to BBC Radio Wales on Wednesday evening.