Countdown to Brexit: 46 days – Another critical week in Parliament – and no clear way forward as the clock ticks down to the default “no-deal” Brexit

A debate on an ‘amendable motion’ is scheduled to take place in the House of Commons on 14 February 2019.  At the time of writing this briefing, the exact wording of the motion for debate in each House is not known.

The scheduling comes from a commitment made by the Prime Minister on 29 January 2019 – when the Commons voted in favour of a backbench amendment – which was supported by the Prime Minister and the Government – to replace the Northern Ireland backstop in the EU Withdrawal Agreement with “alternative arrangements to avoid a hard border”.

The Prime Minister said this gave her a mandate to reopen negotiations with the EU to seek legally binding changes to the Withdrawal Agreement. She said she intended to bring a revised deal back to the Commons for a “second meaningful vote” as soon as possible.

However, if the Government could not bring back a revised deal by 13 February 2019, Mrs May said that she would make a statement on that date – and table an amendable motion for debate the next day.  This date is a self-imposed deadline and not a statutory one under the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018 (EUWA).

In the meantime, Mrs May met with the President of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, on 7 February 2019 for what they described as “robust but constructive talks”.

Mrs May outlined various options for achieving legally binding changes to the terms of the backstop to address Parliament’s concerns.  President Juncker said that the EU could not reopen the Withdrawal Agreement – but remained “open” to adding wording to the Political Declaration that sets out the framework for negotiations on the future relationship between the UK and the EU.

Further talks between the two sides are ongoing, and Mrs May and President Juncker have agreed to meet again before the end of February to take stock of these discussions.

The Prime Minister has not said anything explicitly about holding a debate in the House of Lords. However, the Leader of the House of Lords had already indicated that Peers would have the opportunity to consider the outcome of the votes held in the Commons on 29 January 2019.  Thus, a  “take note” debate – that is, one on a ‘non-amendable’ motion – is scheduled to take place in the House of Lords on 13 February 2019 on the UK’s withdrawal from the EU.

This Week in Parliament

Monday 11 February: MPs will debate the Financial Services (Implementation of Legislation) Bill.   This is intended to authorise the Government to make provisions for certain EU financial services legislation adopted on or before – but no later than two years after – the United Kingdom leaves the EU.

 Tuesday 12 February: The Immigration and Social Security Co-ordination Bill starts its Committee stage today.  If passed, it would repeal free movement and other related citizens rights derived from the EU, which have become part of UK legislation.

Two Committees will also focus on immigration and EU citizens.  The Home Affairs Committee takes evidence on the EU Settlement Scheme – which is the process by which EU nationals residing in the UK can regularise their immigration status.  The Scottish Affairs Committee have a one-off session to follow up on its previous inquiry into Immigration and Scotland.

Wednesday 13 February: The Prime Minister is committed to make a statement on Brexit next steps – which will dictate tomorrow’s business.

The Exiting the EU Committee will hear from Bertie Ahern, Taoiseach of the Republic of Ireland between 1994-2008.  During his time in office, he oversaw the successful negotiation of the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement between the British and Irish Governments.

The Northern Ireland Affairs Committee will examine the backstop.

The Public Accounts Committee will undertake a progress review of the UK Government’s post-Brexit border plans.

The Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee continues scrutiny of the draft Environment (Principles and Governance) Bill.

Thursday 14 February: Parliamentary business today depends on what occurs on Wednesday.

In case you missed it – a summary of last week’s Brexit news

  • The Prime Minister made a speech in Belfast – saying that she knew that many people in Northern Ireland and across the island of Ireland were worried about what Parliament’s rejection of the withdrawal deal would mean for them.  She affirmed her commitment to the people of Northern Ireland, to the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement and her “unshakeable” commitment to “delivering a Brexit that ensures no return to a hard border”.
  • European Council President, Donald Tusk, said that: “there is a special place in Hell” for “those who promoted Brexit without even a sketch of a plan of how to carry it out safely.”
  • Prime Minister, Theresa May, visited Brussels the following day – with the aim of securing legally binding changes to the transition agreement that would help her Brexit deal pass in Parliament.
  • The EU had pre-empted the visit issuing a formal letter from Presidents Tusk and Juncker stating that there is no constitutional mechanism that allows discussions on the Irish border backstop to reopen.
  • Bank of England Governor, Mark Carney, said “The fog of Brexit is increasing the chance of a recession” in the UK.
  • UK Labour Party leader, Jeremy Corbyn, set out five demands for supporting a Brexit deal including that for a UK-wide customs union with the EU.
  • UK International Trade Secretary, Liam Fox, said he couldn’t rule out the possibility of the UK cutting import tariffs to zero in the event of a no-deal Brexit.  We posted details from the World Trade Treaty that prevents this happening.
  • UK Business Secretary, Greg Clarke, said that delaying Article 50 would only prolong the uncertainty facing businesses.
  • Japanese car maker, Toyota, committed to its manufacturing plans in the UK a week after rival firm Nissan said it will move a proposed new manufacturing plant from the UK to Japan.  Nissan’s decision reflects the sharp downturn in the European diesel market, with Brexit as an aggravating factor.
  • The UK government is drafting plans to boost the economy in the event of a no-deal Brexit, including options ranging from cutting taxes, boosting investment and slashing tariffs.
  • The EU is ramping up mobilisation of its contingency plans for a no-deal Brexit.


Leader of the Opposition, Jeremy Corbyn MP – set out in a letter to the Prime Minister five changes to the Political Declaration that Labour wanted to see “enshrined in law” if they are to vote to accept the Government’s deal and its Withdrawal Agreement in its present state:

  • “A permanent and comprehensive UK-wide customs union.  This would include alignment with the union customs code, a common external tariff and an agreement on commercial policy that includes a UK say on future EU trade deals.  We believe that a customs union is necessary to deliver the frictionless trade that our businesses, workers and consumers need, and is the only viable way to ensure there is no hard border on the island of Ireland.  As you are aware, a customs union is supported by most businesses and trade unions.
  • Close alignment with the single market.  This should be underpinned by shared institutions and obligations, with clear arrangements for dispute resolution.
  • Dynamic alignment on rights and protections so that UK standards keep pace with evolving standards across Europe as a minimum, allowing the UK to lead the way.
  • Clear commitments on participation in EU agencies and funding programmes, including in areas such as the environment, education, and industrial regulation.
  • Unambiguous agreements on the detail of future security arrangements, including access to the European Arrest Warrant and vital shared databases.”

Yesterday, the Prime Minister sent a reply – arguing that her own Brexit plan “explicitly provides for the benefits of a customs union” in terms of avoiding tariffs, while allowing “development of the UK’s independent trade policy beyond our economic partnership with the EU”.

She wrote: “I am not clear why you believe it would be preferable to seek a say in future EU trade deals rather than the ability to strike our own deals?”

Whilst Mrs May accepts that a customs union could potentially deliver her a Commons majority – it risks splitting her party.  This was reinforced in interviews on BBC with Ministers indicating that they  would resign if this happened.

In other parts of her letter to Corbyn, Mrs May was more conciliatory – notably on environmental and workers’ rights.  She rejected his idea of “dynamic alignment” – automatically keeping the UK in step with EU standards – saying this should be a UK decision.

But she concluded that: “In the interests of building support across the house we are also prepared to commit to asking Parliament whether it wishes to follow suit whenever the EU changes its standards in these areas.”