Like us students, MPs are enjoying a break from their work over Christmas, with parliament in recess. On the 7th of January, however, our term began and with it came the deadlines and exams we had been doing such a good job of avoiding. The same day, MPs also returned to parliament and faced the no-less enviable task of making momentous decisions about the UK’s exit from the EU.
While we were getting festive in the lead up to Christmas, December was not exactly a jolly time for the Prime Minister and her government. Already weakened by the Conservatives’ lack of majority in the Commons, Theresa May experienced a barrage of setbacks, challenges and defeats in her attempt to gain approval for the withdrawal agreement she finalised with the EU in November. The opening of the debate on May’s deal was disrupted on the 4th December, when the government experienced a whopping three defeats in the Commons in a single day. For the first time in history, MPs voted to find the government in contempt of parliament, for failing to publish the full legal advice on Brexit despite being required to by a binding vote. Two further defeats dramatically asserted the sovereignty of parliament over the Brexit deal; Dominic Grieve, a pro-EU Tory MP, ironically echoed a Leave slogan in stating that parliament must “take back control.”
Facing a resounding loss, on the 10th December May took the decision to postpone the vote on her deal, despite insisting it would go ahead. By this time, the sizeable bloc of Eurosceptic Conservative MPs, who oppose the current deal on the grounds that it fails to deliver a hard Brexit, were suitably disgruntled to trigger a confidence vote in the Prime Minister. For many, this seemed like the end for Mrs May; however, she won the vote on the 12th December, albeit with 37% of her party voting against her. This was described as a “terrible result” by Jacob Rees-Mogg, one of the lead instigators of the vote, but allies of May such as Chris Grayling argued that the vote was a “clear statement” of the party’s support of her leading Brexit.
Theresa May and her government stand in an extremely difficult position, facing opposition on the one hand from Remainers who are pushing for a second referendum, and on the other from rebellious Tory MPs who want further separation from the EU. EU officials are steadfast in the finality of the current agreement, meaning significant changes will be unlikely. The border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic, which will become the UK’s land border with the EU, is an ongoing issue, with plans to avoid a hard border opposed by the PM’s unofficial coalition partners, the DUP.
For now, the vote on Theresa May’s deal is due to be held in the week beginning 14th January. The uncertainty surrounding support for the deal has led to the government stepping up plans for the eventuality of the UK ‘crashing out’ of the EU with no deal in place. These include putting the armed forces on standby, reserving space on ferries for important supplies and advising businesses to implement contingency planning. The government has warned that the only alternative to May’s deal is no deal, leading to accusations of scaremongering to push through the deal; Jeremy Corbyn has accused the PM of trying to force a choice between these two “unacceptable outcomes.” The prospect of a no-deal exit has certainly shaken some, including the Justice Secretary David Gauke who has said he would resign if the government pursued that option. For now, Downing Street is maintaining that a deal is the most likely outcome.
Our elected representatives have a serious task ahead, but their disunity over the question of how Brexit should happen means that it is impossible to know how the situation will stand on the 29th March. All we can be sure of is that the results of the next few months will hold longstanding consequences for Britain.