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Theresa May’s Brexit plan B sounds a lot like plan A

Parliament will now try to take some control, as the Brexit deadline gets closer.

Theresa May Struggles To Find Viable Brexit Deal
Prime Minister Theresa May on January 21, 2019.
Jack Taylor/Getty Images
Jen Kirby is a senior foreign and national security reporter at Vox, where she covers global instability.

British Prime Minister Theresa May’s Brexit deal suffered a humiliating and dramatic defeat in Parliament last week.

May returned on Monday to give a statement to Parliament on her next steps — the so-called “plan B.”

But plan B didn’t sound all that different from plan A.

That leaves the United Kingdom stuck in the same place it’s been for the better part of two years: deeply divided on Brexit, with no obvious resolution. Meanwhile, the Brexit deadline of March 29, 2019 — the day when the UK will leave the European Union, deal or no deal — is swiftly approaching.

May acknowledged in her Monday statement to members of Parliament that her government’s approach had to change. She then claimed it had — even though it wasn’t totally obvious how, to the frustration of members of her own Conservative Party and the opposition.

“The prime minister seems to be going through motions of accepting the result but in reality is in deep denial,” Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said, referring to her defeat last week. “It really does feel a bit like ‘Groundhog Day.’”

May’s plan B shows she doesn’t really have one

May didn’t offer any dramatic changes to her Brexit strategy. Based on her statement, she’s trying to make some tweaks to her original deal, with the hope that the Brexit deadline will force members of Parliament to relent and vote for it in the end.

In her statement, she noted a few areas where she “sensed” change to her deal was needed. She said her government would be more “flexible” and “open” in working with Parliament on the future EU-UK relationship, which will be negotiated after (and if) the Brexit deal is approved. She also promised protections for workers’ rights and the environment, and scrapped a controversial fee that the government had previously been charging EU citizens who wanted to apply to stay in the UK.

May also said she was determined to work with the EU and Parliament to find a palatable solution to the “Irish backstop.”

The backstop is a key part of the Brexit deal that guarantees that the border between Northern Ireland (part of the UK) and Ireland (part of the EU) remains open after the breakup. It’s a pillar of the Good Friday Agreement, which curtailed decades of sectarian conflict in Northern Ireland.

The backstop is contentious. The pro-Brexit Conservatives hate the backstop because they see it as trapping the UK within the EU indefinitely; meanwhile, Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party (whose support props up May’s government) hates it because they don’t want any setup that treats Northern Ireland differently than the rest of the UK.

May’s “plan B,” then, appeared to hinge on the idea that she will get more feedback from Parliament and go back to the European Union and win concessions from the member states — something that seems extremely unlikely at this stage.

The EU has insisted that the withdrawal agreement, which was negotiated over months and finally agreed to in November, is the final deal on offer. On the Irish backstop, in particular, some EU member states — particularly Ireland, which has a big stake in this — have been extremely firm that it can’t have time limits or be tweaked in any other way.

May says she is listening to Parliament and meeting with business leaders and stakeholders to be clear on what they need. But knowing that the EU likely isn’t going to renegotiate, her plan B doesn’t involve any major substantive changes.

She also shot down some of the proposals that other members of Parliament have put forward, which is consistent with her stance throughout the Brexit debate. She continued to rule out the possibility of a no-deal Brexit, about the only thing that would likely command a cross-party majority in Parliament.

“The right way to rule out ‘no deal’ is for this House to approve a deal with the European Union,” May said, adding that the only way to avoid a “no deal Brexit” would be to revoke Article 50 (the mechanism the UK used to leave the EU) and stay in the EU.

May also rejected extending Article 50 — which would basically mean pushing back the Brexit deadline — or the possibility of a second referendum, which would give the public another chance to decide on Brexit. She said such a referendum “could damage social cohesion by undermining faith in our democracy.”

So what now?

Members of Parliament — both opposition and backbench (those Conservatives who are not part of May’s government) — will now try to take more control of the Brexit process by introducing amendments.

Eight amendments have been introduced so far, though it’s not clear all of them will be voted on. Others may be introduced, or die out, as the week goes on. The success of some of these amendments will likely depend on whether May’s government tries to whip votes and orders Conservatives to vote against them, or whether it will allow for a “free vote,” without party pressure.

The amendments include a measure to avoid a no-deal Brexit — meaning a way to prevent the UK from crashing out of the EU without a deal on March 29, 2019. This is probably one of the few amendments that have support from a swath of Conservative and Labour Party members, and might be able to get a majority.

There are also amendments calling for a second referendum. A Labour MP introduced an amendment that would assemble a 250-member “Citizens’ Assembly” that would let the public offer advice on how to handle Brexit. Another would give Parliament the power to debate a range of options — from a second referendum to an even softer Brexit — through something called “indicative votes,” which is basically a straw poll to see which options can get a majority in Parliament.

Whether these amendments will be binding is still a question — and they could end up making the process even more chaotic, by putting MPs at odds with May’s government. The goal is to show May’s government where Parliament stands and try to force her to change course.

Members of Parliament will vote on May’s “plan B” and these new amendments on January 29. The goal is to find the best path forward for Parliament and May’s government — though who even knows if there’s still one to be found.

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