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Brexit and the New Year

Jake Belsten (University of Warwick)

At the time of year where most people are attempting to think about anything but politics, Brexit has once again been the dominant topic of news reports over the festive period. Even from a cursory glance at the headlines, the political scene can seem ever more gridlocked and confused – from either side of the divide. 


The Deal

The state of Brexit at the end of 2018 can be described very simply: deadlock. What was supposed to be the final act of the process was begun on 13 November when the government announced Theresa May had finally managed to strike a deal with the European Union negotiators. This 585-page withdrawal document was intended to settle outstanding issues resulting from the UK’s departure. It was accompanied by a 26-page political declaration that is the theoretical basis for the future relationship between the UK and the EU following ‘Brexit Day’ on 29 March 2019.

The main points of the deal included:

  • the safeguarding of citizens’ rightsfor the 3 million EU citizens currently resident in the UK, and the 1 million UK citizens resident in the EU; this applies to any citizens that emigrate during the transitional implementation period, which is due to end on 31 December 2020.
  • a so-called “divorce bill”of £39 billion to be paid by the UK to the EU, covering its contribution the EU budget up to 2020 and other commitments made as a member state prior to the referendum.
  • an Irish backstop arrangementthat would mean Northern Ireland would still be subject to single market regulations following the transition period if an arrangement could not be reached between the UK and the Republic of Ireland on the movement of goods and people across the Irish border.
  • a commitment to cooperation between the UK and several EU defence institutions, including Europol and Eurojust; the UK has also negotiated its participation in several EU-led defence projects.
  • a commitment that the UK and the EU will be ‘separate markets and distinct legal orders’, that seemingly undermines the government’s previous commitment to frictionless trade with the EU.


This deal was immediately criticised from multiple factions. Pro-Remain MPs, such as Anna Soubry, were generally sympathetic to the deal but many used the moment as an opportunity to highlight the irresolvable rifts within the Conservative Party and called for a second referendum – now widely known as a People’s Vote – on the deal which has gained substantial traction over recent months. The government minister Jo Johnson – who had been the first Remainer to resign from the government over Brexit the previous week – was among those calling for a People’s Vote, voicing the common criticism that a “half-in, half-out” solution would placate neither side.

The deal faced a more substantial threat from pro-Brexit MPs. The most contentious agreement was by far the Irish backstop, which many MPs interpreted as an opportunity for the UK – or at least part of it – to be indefinitely tied to EU rules and laws, violating one of the key pledges of the 2016 vote. It would, effectively, create a border down the Irish Sea. This was particularly unpopular with the Democratic Unionist Party, a Leave-supporting Northern Irish party. In a particularly frustrating twist of parliamentary arithmetic, the DUP is also the party on which May depends to keep her government in power. This is due to the confidence and supply arrangement put in place following the 2017 general election. The DUP immediately vowed to vote down the deal, and over 100 Conservative MPs vowed to do the same. 

May also faced opposition in the form of actions: Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab became the second holding that post to resign in 4 months; he was followed by Work and Pensions Secretary Esther McVey and several junior ministers. Prominent backbencher Jacob Rees-Mogg also announced he would be submitting a letter of no-confidence in May as Conservative leader, prompting speculation that backbench opposition against the Prime Minister would result in her being ousted.


The Vote

May’s critics – both in her own party and the Opposition - restrained themselves, however, apparently preferring the tactic of defeating the deal in public instead of behind closed doors. The perfect opportunity for such a defeat presented itself in the form of the legally-required “meaningful vote” scheduled for December 11. Without a simple majority from MPs in the House of Commons, the deal would not be ratified and could not be implemented upon departure from the EU; a defeat of this magnitude was also expected to be a de factovote of no confidence in Theresa May. The Prime Minister conducted a whistle-stop tour of the UK in the weeks leading up to the vote, in the hope that the electorate would pressure their MPs into voting with the government. However, it became overwhelmingly apparent that the deal could not be passed through the Commons : Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens, the Scottish National Party, Plaid Cymru, the DUP, and dozens of Conservative MPs had sworn to vote against it.

The day before the vote was due, May announced to the Commons that it would be re-timetabled for mid-January. This – perhaps unsurprisingly – prompted uproar from both sides of the House, and a rare intervention from the Speaker John Bercow urging May to think again. Later that week, May returned to Brussels in an attempt to seek “clarifications” about the Irish backstop, but the EU has made it clear negotiations will not be reopened. The postponement of the vote (which the government is still expected to lose) has opened up the two extremes of the debate – no Brexit, or no deal – as more likely outcomes. 

While one vote was delayed, another was forced into existence. The number of Conservative MPs submitting letters of no confidence in the Prime Minister reached the magic number of 48 on[IC1] December 12 – this represents 15% of Conservative MPs, the benchmark that any confidence motion must attain under the party’s rules. A vote of confidence was held amongst Conservative MPs that evening. May won this confidence vote: 200 MPs supported her whilst 117 voted against her – a substantial minority that would likely have been larger if May had not promised to resign before the next general election. Aside from leaving of her own accord, May is now safe as party leader for 12 months.

After weeks of turmoil, Westminster has now grown quiet over the Christmas recess. Jeremy Corbyn has been pressured by other opposition parties and his own MPs to table a vote of confidence in the government but, due to a lack of support from the DUP, he appears to be waiting until the vote on the deal is held on January 13[IC2] . This way his appeal to bring down the government will have much greater legitimacy in the eyes of the electorate. Corbyn has, however, repeatedly affirmed his commitment to Brexit, despite recent reports indicating that 72% of Labour party members support a second referendum. Meanwhile, Downing Street has spent the holiday period releasing reports and paperwork concerning a No Deal Brexit for businesses and the public alike: supporters view this as a pragmatic precaution; critics argue it is simply a form of brinkmanship aimed at pushing MPs to support the deal in the face of economic oblivion. 

At the close of 2018, the situation is uncertain and volatile. If there is a consensus across the country, an appeal for reconciliation and cooperation seems to be it – for auld lang syne, if nothing else. 

Reference for details on the deal

For recent Labour figures.


Photo credit: Number 10 (flickr)