British Prime Minister Theresa May has said that she will return to talks with the European Union (EU, and will attempt to renegotiate Britain’s withdrawal agreement, after MPs narrowly voted to endorse a plan to renegotiate the controversial Irish backstop.
However, with the EU firmly insisting that the withdrawal agreement is not open to negotiation, the path ahead remains unclear. The Labour Party has also agreed to hold talks with the government over Brexit after MPs supported a non-binding resolution that opposes Britain leaving the EU without a deal, even as one resolution that would have given Parliament the means to rule out ‘no deal’ was rejected. Ms. May has insisted that crashing out without a deal remains on the table.
Breaking the impasse
The developments came in a series of amendments to Ms. May’s withdrawal plans on Tuesday evening as MPs sought to break the political impasse over the direction of Brexit, after voting by a substantial majority earlier this month to reject her deal as it stood.
The key victory for the government came in the support for an amendment by Sir Graham Brady, who heads the Conservative Party’s 1922 backbench committee. The amendment calls for an alternative to the Irish backstop.
The backbench amendment, which calls on the government to return to the negotiating table with the EU and exact substantive changes, was backed by the government in the end and won by 317 to 301 following an afternoon of heated debate.
Speaking in Parliament on Wednesday, Ms. May said that Parliament — in calling for her to return to talks and renegotiate the backstop — had done what the EU had consistently asked for, which was to indicate what it wanted, rather than what it did not. Among the oons being considered by the U.K. is pushing for the backstop to include a unilateral exit mechanism or a time limit.
However, despite the government’s public proclamations, it remains highly uncertain what concessions Britain can get and whether they will be enough to satisfy MPs when the deal is voted on again in coming weeks. Should no substantial changes be obtained, the MPs who on Tuesday gave Ms. May the benefit of the doubt could return to opposing the deal.
Following the vote, the European Council president Donald Tusk insisted that the withdrawal agreement “is and remains the best and only way to ensure an orderly withdrawal of the United Kingdom”, and that the backstop and withdrawal agreement were not open for renegotiation.
A similar response came from the Irish government, while the German Foreign Minister Heiko Mass said Germany and the EU would stand by Ireland on the backstop. “
However, hard-Brexit supporters remained adamant that change was possible. When it came to the EU, amending the backstop was “no skin off their nose”, former Foreign Secretary and arch-Brexiteer Boris Johnson told the BBC.
Not without a deal?
While the government won on the crucial Brady amendment, it suffered a significant defeat when an amendment by Conservative MP Caroline Spelman was passed by the House, stating that Britain would not leave without a deal. While the vote is non-binding, it is seen as an indication of Parliament’s determination to act in the future to prevent such a scenario unfolding. However, it does not take no-deal off the table. An amendment by Labour MP Yvette Cooper that would have delayed Brexit by three months if no plan was agreed by the end of February — effectively providing the means for MPs to rule out no deal — was defeated.
On Wednesday, Ms. May continued to refuse to take no-deal off the table. “The House did vote to reject no deal, but that cannot be the end of the story,” she insisted. “You cannot just vote to reject no deal; you have to vote for a deal, otherwise you leave with no deal.”