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Brexit tug of war

Withdrawal Agreement: third time wrong

Bruce Oliver Newsome
March 29, 2019

On Friday, Theresa May's government will present her unchanged proposed Withdrawal Agreement for the third time, hoping for third time lucky, but proving itself third time wrong.

It should never have been proposed, it should not have been re-presented a second time, it should not be re-presented a third time.

It was a terrible proposal when revealed in November, and it hasn't changed. It would nominally take Britain out of the EU, but retains Britain's obligations, and replaces the time-limited Article 50 process with the EU's veto over when Britain can leave, and keeps Northern Ireland in the EU if the rest of Britain should choose to leave.

It was so unpopular within days of release that May refused to put it to a vote until January, but she also refused to change it. She claimed, and the EU claimed, that it could not be renegotiated, it was the only possible option, and the only alternatives were "crashing out" without a deal or not leaving at all.

It was defeated in January with a record count of nays. Still May refused to change it, until two months later, two weeks before it was supposed to come into effect, when she agreed an addendum with the EU, which she claimed guaranteed Britain's unilateral right to leave it. In fact, the addendum confirmed the EU's veto. The next day Parliament voted it down a second time, with the second highest number of nays ever.

Nevertheless, Theresa May said she would re-present it a third time, But the Speaker of the House of Commons (John Bercow) ruled that it could not be re-presented unless changed. She refused to change it, and motioned an extension to Article 50 to gain more time.

Last week, May came back presenting this extension as a fait accompli, without immediately motioning to change the exit day in domestic law, contrary to her promises and the Speaker's demands. Meanwhile, on Monday Parliament approved Oliver Letwin's backbench, Remainer-oriented motion to take control of business on Wednesday.

Nevertheless, Parliament couldn't agree any alternative, so the government (through Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay) stood to claim that the results strengthen Theresa May's proposed Withdrawal Agreement as "the best option." However, some of the pointers of order (Margaret Beckett and Anna Soubry) pointed out that the most favoured alternatives (second referendum and customs union) earned more ayes than May's proposed Withdrawal Agreement.

May's proposal was not motioned on Wednesday, and would have been voted down, because the DUP (Democratic Unionist Party) clarified that it would not vote for it, and Jacob Rees-Mogg (leader of the Conservative backbench European Research Group) had promised to follow the DUP.

Some Conservatives had promised to support her WA if she promises to step down, but trading May for her Withdrawal Agreement makes no sense. They would be rejecting a leader for sticking with a bad proposal, while approving the proposal. They would be getting rid of a leader, while endorsing the leader's legacy.

On Thursday, Remainer-leaning newspapers and the BBC led their reports with May's promise on Wednesday to step down if her proposal were approved, as if this promise is a great breakthrough. It is not. She has made this promise before, for instance, in December, in order to win the Parliamentary Party's vote of confidence. Then as now, she offered no schedule for her departure. Under party rules, she cannot face another vote of confidence until December. She doesn't need to call a general election until 2022. Her failures and low approval are unprecedented, yet so is her carelessness.

In any case, on Wednesday the Speaker confirmed that May's Withdrawal Agreement could not be re-presented unless it is changed significantly.

Yet on Thursday the government promised to re-present the Withdrawal Agreement, without the attached Political Declaration, and the Speaker allowed that as a "change." The Speaker's interpretation of the constitution in the last few months has been contradictory according to whatever is convenient to his Remainer bias. Probably, he suddenly thinks Remainers will be served by getting it defeated Friday, given so many Remainer alternatives this week. When he refused to allow it to be motioned last week, the only alternative was to extend Article 50, which was then the Remainer's preference.

Yet as a matter of fact and law, May's Withdrawal Agreement has not changed. It should not be re-presented.

It must be defeated. It still doesn't have support from the DUP, about half of the ERG, or those few other MPs who care about what is best for British sovereignty, trade, democratic will, certainty, and lawfulness.

The WA can be passed only if the Labour Party swings behind it. Rory Stewart (prisons minister and dogmatic supporter of the WA) told Channel 4 News honestly that the WA depends on Labour votes.

May's motioning of her WA today (Friday), the third time in more than four months, is unconstitutional, egotistical, manipulative, and wasteful. Britain should have been leaving the EU today. Once her WA is defeated, Britain will be set to leave the EU on 12 April, under the terms of extension, which would have allowed extension to 22 May only if her WA were approved.

Likely Parliament will not agree an alternative in the next two weeks, at which point it will request another extension, rather than accept leaving on 12 April under WTO rules, which Parliament mistakenly characterizes as "crashing out."

At that point, I suggest only civil disobedience will bring Parliament back to its democratic responsibilities.

Bruce Oliver Newsome, Ph.D. is a lecturer in International Relations at the University of San Diego
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