The EU could call Theresa May’s bluff by asking the meaningful vote to be a matter of confidence

Clement Leroy argues that there is no way out the current deadlock in Westminster without attaching a vote of confidence to the approval of the deal. In a healthy democracy, the rejection of the main Government’s policy should be a reason for resignation and the threat of new elections and implosion of the Conservative party could be enough to discipline the Tory dissenters. 

As the Prime Minister returns to Brussels with what she called a “new mandate” to obtain changes on the Irish backstop, EU leaders despair about the current deadlock in the British Parliament. For the EU, nothing has fundamentally changed as the alternative arrangements have already been explored during the last two years and the backstop has actually been put in place to respond to the fact that none of these arrangements would prevent a hard-border.

More importantly, as in December, it is not clear what concession would actually enable a deal to pass in the Commons. The arithmetic looks grim with the historic defeat of 230. Above all, one cannot underestimate the EU’s officials understanding of current British politics: all of them would have seen that when a member of the ERG asked if voting for the Brady amendment would tie him to vote in favour of the Deal at the next meaningful vote, the Prime Minister replied “no”. The EU leaders do not want to trust the most ardent defenders of Brexit, and rightly so. Many of them have made clear that their preferred option would be no-deal, which they can best obtain by a last minute vote against the only deal on the table.

So what could the EU do not to appear as a rigid and intransigent partner, fuelling even more anti-EU rhetoric, and at the same time break the impasse in Westminster?

The last development can be seen as a move from the British side to put the ball back into the EU’s court. In other words, if the EU does not move on the backstop while the Prime Minister states that she has a mandate from Parliament for an amended deal, it will be blamed for a no-deal outcome. This has already started, as illustrated by the comments from Chris Grayling.

There is a way for the EU to call Theresa May’s bluff and force a way out of the deadlock, but it is risky. In this scenario the EU would accept to reopen the backstop to discuss at one condition: Theresa May would have to commit to make the second meaningful vote a “matter of confidence”. An old convention (not tested since the Fixed-Parliaments Act) indeed states that governments could designate a particular vote as being a “matter of confidence” where a defeat would be a resigning matter. There is no evidence that this mechanism cannot be used anymore, as it is impossible to imagine a situation where a government would promise to resign in case of defeat and not do so.

For the EU, the reasoning is quite clear: we need to trust you when you say that an amended deal would pass Parliament. Promise to call the Tory dissenters’ bluff out and we will know that we can engage in this fully: do they really support a deal / would they risk new elections just to take down the deal? Of course, this would be a two-step commitment:  the EU would ask the Prime Minister to announce that she will commit to attach confidence to the meaningful vote only once the new agreement is reached and if she declares being satisfied with it, not to appear to be asking for a blank check and deliver just minimal concessions.

What could happen then? 1) The Prime Minister refuses, and her argument that she has a mandate and majority in the House of Commons is watered down. The ball comes back in the British camp. 2) The Prime Minister accepts and she wins the vote. End of story. 3) The Prime Minister accepts and loses the vote: new elections will be held, and article 50 would have to be extended. The last option is not ideal for the EU but there is the reckoning that a majority has to be found. If there is no way to reach one with the current Parliament, new elections could at least provide the EU with a partner with enough of a stable majority to pass a deal.

The biggest issue with this plan is that EU would have to cross a red-line and actually renegotiate the backstop. What tweaks could be found is still uncertain but it would prove that the EU is trying to be more flexible to find solutions and avoid no-deal.

Clement Leroy is a Research and Policy Engagement Associate at the UCL European Institute and UCL Public Policy.

NoteThe views expressed in this post are those of the author, and not of the UCL European Institute, nor of UCL.

Photo by John Cameron on Unsplash

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