By David Shiels, courtesy of Open Europe
Tomorrow the House of Commons will sit for the first time on a Saturday since 1982. MPs will have the opportunity to approve or reject the revised Brexit deal, which was published by the Government and the European Commission yesterday.
In a press conference on Thursday evening, the Prime Minister has said he was confident that the Agreement will win the support of MPs, but the challenge of getting the deal through the Commons is considerable.
The DUP have confirmed that the party’s ten MPs will vote against the deal – a major disappointment for the Government in itself – while the party’s Brexit spokesman, Sammy Wilson, said this morning that he was encouraging Conservative MPs to do so as well. A number of the so-called Spartans of the European Research Group (ERG) have already indicated they will vote for the Johnson plan, irrespective of the DUP’s position, but every single vote will count.
The other significant group that Johnson will need are the Conservative rebels who had the Whip withdrawn after joining the opposition parties in taking control of the Parliamentary timetable to facilitate the Benn Act. There were 21 of these MPs originally, but several will not vote for the deal including Sam Gyimah, who has now joined the Liberal Democrats.
Meanwhile, the opposition parties are all officially opposed to the Government’s Brexit deal. In a series of tweets yesterday, the Labour party’s Brexit spokesman, Sir Keir Starmer, set out his case against it, pointing out that ‘the political direction of travel under Johnson is to a distant economic relationship with the EU.’
It is certainly the case that the Prime Minister sees divergence from the EU as a potential advantage of Brexit: as he put it in his August letter to Donald Tusk, ‘that is the point of our exit.’ It is also true that Johnson challenged the idea of the backstop as a bridge to a close future relationship with the EU. As Open Europe’s explainer on the revised Withdrawal Agreement has pointed out, the backstop has now effectively been replaced with a front stop allowing the UK, including Northern Ireland, to pursue an independent trade policy immediately after the transition period. But this comes with the drawback of checks in the Irish sea.
While the critics of Johnson’s new deal may not agree with his vision of Brexit, this was the inevitable direction of Conservative Party policy after Theresa May’s departure. What is also true is that the new Agreement does not actually rule out a closer relationship with the EU if that is what a future Government chooses to negotiate.
Even if Johnson can get the support of MPs to pass his deal by 31 October (or shortly afterwards), the Government will still need to go to the country before trade talks with the EU can begin in earnest. Without a working majority – and now without the goodwill of the DUP – the Government cannot continue for much longer without a General Election.
Passing a deal before then would mean that Remain is taken off the table, but the future relationship is still open for debate.
Dr. David Shiels holds a PhD in History from Cambridge, where he also studied for his masters and undergraduate degrees. His academic interests include Euroscepticism in the UK, immigration and domestic British politics. He is writing a book on the career of Enoch Powell and is an expert on the Thatcher era. David is from Northern Ireland and has written widely about Ulster Unionism and UK-Ireland relations.