Commons on a Knife Edge: MPs Debate the Latest Brexit Deal

After months of toing and froing, arguing and bickering, proposing and counter proposing, the UK finally has (another) Brexit deal. On Thursday Mr Johnson announced on Twitter “we’ve got a great new deal that takes back control – now Parliament should get Brexit done on Saturday…”. Jean-Claude Junker, European Commission President, said it was “a fair and balanced deal for both the EU and the UK” recommending that the EU Council endorse it. They have done just that, with all 27 EU leaders backing the deal. As Guy Verhofstadt, Brexit Coordinator for the European Parliament has said; “the ball is in the camp of members of parliament on both sides of the channel”.

And herein lies the biggest problem.

While both sides have been working on the finer details of the legal text of a deal, it will be both the UK parliament (sitting today, on a Saturday for the first time since 1982) and the European parliament that will ultimately decide whether or not it will cut the mustard. That requirement for parliamentary approval saw Theresa May’s deal get slapped down four times. Already, the stars appear reluctant to align for Mr Jonson with Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn saying that this deal seemed “even worse than Theresa May’s” calling it a “sell out”. Furthermore, the Democratic Unionist Party have said that they cannot support the deal saying, “these proposals are not, in our view, beneficial to the economic well being of Northern Ireland and they undermine the integrity of the union”. How to solve the issue of the Northern Irish border, the UKs only land border with the EU, has been the biggest headache in the whole withdrawal process, indeed, that’s what a lot of the changes to this deal revolve around. It may prove too big an issue to surmount and get through parliament. What’s perhaps less clear is what happens if it doesn’t pass – Theoretically, one would assume that, in line with the Benn Act, the PM would have to ask for an extension from the EU, however even if he did do that, its far from certain he’d get one (Jean-Claude Junker has ruled out another extension, Donald Tusk, by contrast, has refused to rule one out). In all likelihood, the Liberal Democrats will attempt to vote down the deal, as will the SNP. The Lib Dems have been passionate about stopping Brexit from the off, so their position is at least consistent, and the SNP have always maintained that since they represent Scottish voters – the majority of who voted remain – they do not want Scotland to leave the EU against its wishes. Perhaps most interestingly though, is the position MPs in Welsh constituencies. Wales voted to leave in 2016, but Plaid Cymru has always been a party that campaigned to remain. The real complexity comes when you look at recent polls which have suggested that 40% of the Welsh would be willing to leave Britain if it meant that Wales could stay in the EU. That is a high proportion of opinion on an issue that has not been on the agenda for a very long time is something that may play on the minds of those representing Welsh constituencies.

For now, we will have to wait for the outcome as debate is well underway in the commons as I write this and despite what I’ve reported above, the vote is balancing on a knife edge. It is being reported by some that 9 Labour MPs are expected to back the government, and that Boris Johnson is trying to get some of the 21 former Conservative MPs he booted out of the party a month or so ago to vote for his deal – perhaps unsurprisingly, not all of them appear too willing to cooperate. However, the BBCs political editor Laura Kuenssberg has said on twitter that the current numbers on the vote, were it to be held right now, are “310 FOR 302 AGAINST with 27 undecided or keeping schtum” – but as she points out, it could all change by the time we get to a meaningful vote.

And that brings us nicely to the final point; when exactly will the vote come? And the simple answer is we’re not entirely sure. Its currently going through the parliamentary process with debates being had and amendments being proposed. There is a chance that the final vote could come today – that is probably the preferred timing for the government. But should certain amendments stick and the government be forced to rethink its schedule, plans are apparently being made to hold it on Tuesday.

This process then, for the moment, is still far from over so buckle up, because there’s set to be one hell of a showdown in the commons this weekend.