Brexit_Mural_(Banksy)_03

Irish border issues have been at the forefront of Brexit discussions, with Northern Ireland set to leave and land- neighbours Republic of Ireland remaining in the EU. Source:
Immanuel Giel (CC BY-SA 4.0).

You could be forgiven for thinking that the latest Brexit news, the results of the Plan B vote last night, meant progress for the UK's EU departure. With MPs agreeing on a course of action for the most part from here until March’s departure, at last the barriers that were established by some members of the House of Commons seem to have been overcome, as Parliament voted in favour of many amendments for the exit deal.

However… in essence, the UK is now back where it was in December. No deal has been approved by both Parliament and the EU, Article 50 is yet to be extended and despite a clear desire to avoid it by most parties involved, no deal still remains on the table.

What was the Plan B vote?

This vote was a Parliamentary judgement determining whether MPs in the House of Commons would back the Prime Minister’s course of action for Brexit from here on out. Whereas with the ‘meaningful vote,’ MPs were purely judging whether to approve the initial deal presented to the House that May agreed with the EU.

Amendments were discussed and debated at length in the House on Tuesday evening, before MPs chose the proposals May would go back to Brussels with, in the hope of renegotiating a deal with the EU that (this time) would crucially get Parliament’s backing.

What happened in Tuesday’s Plan B vote?

Theresa May outlined plans to amend her initial deal with the EU, based on talks she has had with industry leaders and fellow MPs previously in the week. This was approved by the House, along with other amendments, but some were also rejected by the Government.

The most important amendment, one which was passed by 317 votes to 301, was one proposed by Conservative Sir Graham Brady, outlining that the deal will be accepted if parts regarding the Irish backstop were changed. The backstop is essentially an insurance policy should the UK leave the EU without a deal, meaning that there will be no complications with travel and trade between Northern Ireland (part of the UK) and the Republic of Ireland (independent from the UK).

May promised a handful of other legal changes which ensured a number of previous rebels from the Tory party voted in favour of the deal. Another amendment that was passed by 318 – 310 votes was an assurance that the PM would reject a no deal Brexit, but this was purely a vote on principle and is not legally binding. It shows the sentiment among MPs in Parliament and, although it does not have to be enforced, is something that May ignores at her own peril.

What happens next for Brexit?

As for what will happen next, the UK may see itself back in a similar conundrum. Immediately after the vote, President of the European Council, Donald Tusk, categorically ruled out any negotiation of the Irish backstop from the EU. With the backstop being a highly-contentious issue in Parliament,  May will struggle to get the approval of MPs if she doesn’t manage to renegotiate that part of the deal – with another meaningful vote imminent. Yet with the EU standing firm on a no-negotiation policy regarding the backstop, the PM finds herself in a tricky spot.

That will effectively put the UK right back in the same position as it was pre-Christmas, with significantly less time to come to some sort of Brexit arrangement. This ‘progress’ may have only bought the Government a little more time, before ultimately it hits another (inevitable?) wall. Definitive progress has actually come in the form of Jeremy Corbyn now agreeing to meet with Theresa May regarding the deal, following the House’s vote to ensure a no-deal Brexit is avoided. However, whether they will find any common ground is another matter.

Tuesday’s vote showed that May can achieve the backing of the House, but with the ball now back in the EU’s court – will they allow this deadlock to be broken? Or, as Tusk indirectly implied, will May be forced to make a U-turn on the concessions she allowed on her deal to get MP’s approval? If it’s the latter, the efforts of the last few weeks would have been in vain and there would be no clear path for delivering the UK’s exit from the European Union.

Ultimately, the battle in Parliament seems to have been, not won, but simply shifted across over to Brussels. This may prove to be an even tougher conquest.