Prime Minister delivers a statement on Brexit following Commons defeat
As promised last week, the Prime Minister delivered a statement in the House of Commons on the approach to Brexit following last week’s vote rejecting the Brexit deal. The government’s clear position is that approving the deal that the government has negotiated with the EU is the only way of avoiding a no deal outcome that it will contemplate. The Prime Minister stated that the government’s approach had changed, and promised to engage with Parliament in a constructive spirit going forward, particularly in post-Brexit negotiations. However, outlining the government’s position on the six key issues identified in recent cross-party talks, it is clear that the room for maneuver on the substance of the deal, or alternative routes forward, is very limited. A neutral motion acknowledging the statement will be tabled in accordance with the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018 (EU(W)A 2018). The motion, which will be amendable, will be debated and voted on 29 January 2019.
The Prime Minister focussed on six key issues at the centre of the talks to date:
• widespread concern over the possibility of a no deal exit―the government position is that the only way to rule out the no deal scenario is to revoke the notification under Article 50 TEU (which the government rules out as incompatible with delivering the referendum outcome), or to approve a deal with the EU. Arguments for extending the Article 50 withdrawal period would not rule out no deal but defer the point of decision. In any event, the government view is that the EU is unlikely to agree to an extension without a clear way forward for approving the deal
• support for a second referendum―the government rules out this option, citing a lack of parliamentary support and highlighting deep concerns over the implications of this approach, which it said would set a precedent for future referendums, requiring an extension of Article 50, damaging social cohesion and undermining faith in democracy
• Northern Ireland backstop―the government reiterated its full respect for the Belfast Agreement and commitment to avoiding a return to a hard border on the island of Ireland. The government will seek to address two core issues remaining―the fear of being trapped in the backstop indefinitely and concern over the impact of the backstop arrangements on the union within the UK. The government promises further talks to consider options for the backstop which can command the greatest possible support in the Commons, before then taking the conclusions of those discussion back to the EU
• political declaration―the government acknowledged requirement for further precision on the future relationship. In response, the Prime Minister offered to seek input from a broad range of players outside government, including Parliament, in establishing its mandate for the future relationship negotiations. It is the government’s responsibility to negotiate but the Prime Minister offered to listen to legitimate concerns of interested parties and consult Parliament on the negotiating mandate, harnessing expertise of select committees across all areas. As to concerns over government transparency during negotiations to date, the government promised to update Parliament regularly but also proposed that in future, as negotiations progress, government will look to deliver confidential parliamentary committee sessions to share information without damaging the negotiating position. The government also offered to give the devolved administrations an enhanced role in the next phase of talks, as well as reaching out to Northern Ireland representatives, regional representatives, trade unions, businesses and citizens’ groups
• social and environmental standards―on this issue, the government offered to work with Parliament to develop proposals that give effect to a guarantee that these standards will not be eroded, including further legislation if required
• EU citizens in the UK and UK citizens in the EU waiting for their status to be confirmed―on this point, the Prime Minister acknowledged that the next phase of testing of the UK’s EU settlement scheme launched today and confirmed that when the new scheme is fully implemented on 30 March 2019 the application fee will be waived. Pilot phase applicants will have their fee returned and the government will step up efforts to ensure this is reciprocated in the EU27 Member States
In conclusion, the Prime Minister promised further engagement with MPs, trade unions, business groups and civil society, but ruled out revoking or extending Article 50, or a second referendum, as options. The government’s approach will focus on three key areas for change:
‘First, we will be more flexible, open and inclusive in the future in how we engage Parliament in our approach to negotiating our future partnership with the European Union. Second, we will embed the strongest possible protections on workers’ rights and the environment. And third, we will work to identify how we can ensure that our commitment to no hard border in Northern Ireland and Ireland can be delivered in a way that commands the support of this House, and the European Union.’
• the Prime Minister will lay a Written Ministerial statement in accordance with EU(W)A 2018, s 13(4)–(5)
• a motion in neutral terms will be tabled in accordance with EU(W)A 2018, s 13(6)
• the motion, which will be amendable, will be debated and voted on 29 January 2019
• the Prime Minister will continue talks ahead of that vote, and deliver a further update during that debate on 29 January 2019
The opposition repeated its calls for the government to rule out a no deal outcome and adjust its red lines, to include options for a customs union. In questions that followed, the Prime Minister was also pressed to allow Parliament to conduct a series of indicative votes on potential alternative approaches to gauge parliamentary support for the various options in debate. Pressed on the lack of legal certainty, and the consequences for contracts, transactions and judicial proceedings, the Prime Minister answered that the solution was to approve the Withdrawal Agreement negotiated with the EU.
In terms of timing, the Prime Minister faced a range of challenges―she was asked by some to rule out extending the Article 50 period, by others she was urged to admit that extension was necessary, she was also firmly challenged on the lack of parliamentary time remaining to prepare for Brexit in any event. In response, the Prime Minister confirmed that the UK will leave the EU on 29 March 2019 and reiterated the government’s continued work to prepare for Brexit in any event.