On Tuesday this parliamentary session had its 300th sitting day, making it the longest parliament since the Civil War, although it still has some way to go to match the 13 years of the long parliament. It was yet another sign of what unusual times we live in and the extent to which the Brexit impasse has paralysed politics. This was also expected to be the week that the Labour-Conservative talks on a Brexit deal broke down, instead they continued on life support for at least a few more days, with Labour still signalling it would not sign up to an agreement without significantly more movement from the government. Meanwhile the pan-European election campaign came to Britain when former Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt, arguably the most prominent supporter of a European super state and star of a recent fly-on-the-wall BBC documentary, joined up with Vince Cable in London.
As the talks with Labour carried on behind closed doors, the Prime Minister’s adviser Olly Robbins, subject of a joke about wanting to become Belgian in the Verhofstadt documentary, was dispatched to Brussels again to see what the scope was for redrawing the political declaration to accompany the withdrawal agreement. The EU has been crystal clear over the last few months that it will not reopen the withdrawal agreement signed off by the other 27 EU member states, but it could be open to modifications to the political declaration.
Any reopening of that statement would likely be to meet Labour demands on future customs arrangements between the UK and the EU, but it would not be legally binding, and so is unlikely to satisfy the party’s requirement that any deal with the Conservatives is guaranteed to outlast Theresa May’s premiership. The Labour leadership also knows that no parliament can bind its successors, so these requests can be seen as further evidence that the party is not seriously interested in reaching an agreement.
The Prime Minister may be hoping that if Labour perform poorly in the European elections after their disappointing showing at the local elections they will be more open to an accommodation on Brexit, but given the party is leaking support to parties standing on a strong remain platform the opposite could also occur. Similarly, sentiment on the Conservative backbenches against the government’s current deal, let alone one with more commitments on future customs arrangements, could well harden if the Brexit Party, standing on a no deal platform, win the European elections. So there is every possibility the environment for a new deal, or any deal, becomes more hostile in the coming weeks, not less.
Nevertheless, the government announced this week it would bring back its withdrawal agreement for a second reading in the House of Commons the week of the 3rd of June, after parliament returns from the Whitsun recess. This time it would not be the same as the meaningful votes previously held, but the full draft withdrawal Bill containing all the laws needed to take us out of the EU. This announcement was portrayed by Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay as setting a firm end date to the cross-party talks and an imperative if the UK is to leave the EU before MPs summer recess in July. The government also emphasised that if the withdrawal bill is rejected by MPs the PMs withdrawal agreement would be “dead” and the UK would be set on a path towards either a no deal Brexit or revoking Article 50 before the 31st October, when the UK’s current Article 50 extension runs out. The government made similar comments previously, and so far MPs have not heeded the warning, either because they want to reverse Brexit, or would like a no deal Brexit, or still believe a better deal can be negotiated. However, it also true that if the withdrawal bill is rejected at second reading it cannot be brought back in this parliamentary session, meaning the government would have to risk a Queen’s Speech with a non-existent majority before it could bring the bill back again.
The DUP was quick to signal its scepticism about any shift in its voting position against the withdrawal agreement without further changes to the Northern Ireland backstop, and other opposition parties were quick to follow suit, whilst Labour reserved its position after the Prime Minister’s talks with Jeremy Corbyn. There are rumours, not completely denied by party spokesmen, that Labour could abstain, effectively allowing the withdrawal bill to pass, but given the factors at play, it is unlikely the party would abstain on an issue of such fundamental importance. Another headache for the government is the fact that the whole Bill is likely to raise more questions and objections from MPs than the withdrawal agreement itself. The draft is still being kept inside government at present, but when it does emerge MPs and journalists can be expected to pore over the fine details looking for ways to trip the government up. As well as being MPs first week back after the European elections, the week of the 3rd of June will also see the Peterborough by-election, and the state visit of Donald Trump to the UK. So, the situation could hardly be more fraught politically for the government to try to persuade MPs to back its agreement.
Prior to that potentially blockbuster start to June the Prime Minister still has to navigate dissatisfaction within her own party, so the current Brexit landscape could change overnight in the coming weeks.