A withdrawal agreement governing the terms of Brexit is finally here, along with an outline political declaration on the future relationship. We return, perhaps for the final time, to the perennial Brexit question: Can it make it through parliament?
The 585-page draft withdrawal agreement covers Britain’s financial settlement with the EU; post-Brexit rights of EU citizens in the UK and British citizens in the EU; and plans to avoid a ‘hard’ border on the island of Ireland. It also covers the arrangement for a transition period where EU rules will continue to apply in the UK, allowing businesses to largely operate as they do today across the UK-EU border until new arrangements come into place.
The political declaration is seven pages of hopes for the future relationship, rather than a legally binding document. It says the EU and the UK hope to rapidly conclude a “free trade area combining deep regulatory and customs cooperation.” One bullet point says it will seek to remove barriers to digital trade to ensure an “open, secure and trustworthy online environment.”
Controversy on Irish ‘backstop’
From the beginning, the UK and EU agreed that border infrastructure on the island of Ireland may herald a return to sectarian violence. To avoid it, the two sides agreed the need for ‘backstop’ customs union that would keep the Irish border open should there be no deal by 2020 — a controversial decision with the Northern Irish DUP and many Brexit supporters, two groups Theresa May can’t afford to lose if the deal is to pass in parliament. The draft agreement, specifying that the backstop would apply to the whole UK, with some special provisions for Northern Ireland and only possible to end by mutual agreement between the UK and EU, has angered both groups by threatening a border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK while raising fears that the EU would veto the UK leaving the backstop and gaining an independent trade policy.
Cabinet divided, damaging prospects in parliament
These provisions have cost Theresa May two cabinet ministers, including five-month Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab (now replaced by ultraloyalist Stephen Barclay). Another 18 MPs have quit more junior government roles, more than enough to overturn the government’s small majority by themselves, even without considering the 10 DUP MPs May normally relies on to pass votes, MPs who have sent letters of no confidence (see below) and others who have pledged to vote against the Withdrawal Agreement in the Commons. With May only able to lose 6 votes from Conservative and DUP MPs, around 60 have already indicated they won’t vote for the deal. A lot would have to change for this deal to succeed.
Beginning of the end for May?
Despite a defiant press conference yesterday where she vowed she’d see it through, the choice might not rest with her for much longer. A group of Conservative MPs are now moving to call a vote of confidence in her leadership which, if successful, would force her from office and prompt a Conservative leadership contest. However, with prominent Brexiteers lining up to support May and rebels struggling to coordinate enough support to force the contest, let alone win, May’s government is looking chaotic — but immovable.
LIVE WEBINAR: Join Access Partnership’s Haude Lannon and Mike Laughton on 22 November at 4pm GMT/11am EST as they dissect the possible scenarios for deal or no-deal Brexit. They will also look at what business can do to prepare in both scenarios and what life will look like after Brexit for business operating in the UK. Register here.