Another turbulent week has passed and still, no substantial progress was made that could reassure citizens and companies on both sides of the canal.
Quite the contrary. Members of Parliament began jumping ship, with eight Labour MPs making the start and forming the breakaway Independent Group on 18 February. While Prime Minister Theresa May could have framed this to her advantage, the blow came on 20 February, when three Tory MPs followed suit. Anna Soubry, Sarah Wollaston and Heidi Allen heavily criticized their party for not standing up against hardline Brexiteers making no effort whatsoever to build a consensus. These resignations reduce May’s slim majority in the Commons and are a punch to her attempts to unite her party behind the Withdrawal Agreement. Even worse: rumors have it that more resignations from pro-European Tories could still follow.
With domestic politics adding another layer of obstacles in May’s way to get the Withdrawal Agreement passed, the PM was in Brussels for yet another attempt of seeking concessions from the EU.
Although the meeting with European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker on 20 February did not reveal any breakthrough, it showed a change in May’s strategy. Instead of attempting to reopen the Withdrawal Agreement – what the EU rejected repeatedly – May is now seeking to tweak the Political Declaration and to focus on the alternative arrangements for the future relationship. May hopes that with legal assurances, the Attorney General Geoffrey Cox, who together with Brexit Secretary Steve Barclay met with EU Chief Negotiator Michel Barnier, will be able to change his legal advice to Parliament in a way that it will convince MPs of the deal. His current legal advice considers the backstop to be trapping the UK indefinitely in the EU’s customs union. Something many Brexiteers consider a no-go.
With time running out, May’s government is not the only party that is meeting with EU officials over Brexit this week. Opposition and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn is also in Brussels to elaborate on his plan, involving a UK-wide customs union, during meetings with European Commission Secretary General Martin Selmayr, Barnier and the European Parliament’s Brexit Coordinator Guy Verhofstadt. A move the government cannot be too happy about, as it undermines May’s hopes for concessions from the EU.
Despite all the turmoil, May is determined to bring back a deal for a “meaningful” vote to the Commons next Wednesday 27 February. Should she fail, or the deal not pass, Labour MP Yvette Cooper awaits with another crucial cross-party bill that could increase pressure on May even more. If no deal is passed by 27 February, the cross-party bill would give May until 13 March to secure a deal with the EU. Otherwise, MPs will either vote to agree a no-deal Brexit or vote to require May to seek an extension of Article 50. These are already no good news for May. Furthermore, what makes it even worse, four Cabinet ministers told her they would vote in favor of the Cooper bill if a no-deal Brexit is not off the table by 27 February.
With another crunch week coming up, it remains to be seen whether the change in strategy will deliver the desired results and whether it will be enough to convince Westminster.