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COMMENTARY

Groundhog Day as May's 'Plan B' is so like 'Plan A'

BREXIT watchers will be forgiven for feeling they are caught in a time loop, repeatedly living the same day, just as in the hit 1993 movie Groundhog Day. For on Monday, UK Prime Minister Theresa May delivered a "Plan B" for the nation leaving the EU that is virtually identical to the one that last week left her on the receiving end of the largest House of Commons defeat in the modern political era.

What Monday's announcement underlines is not just Mrs May's stubborn personal nature. It also shows the very limited room for manoeuvre she now has as a prime minister leading a weak minority government; she remains in office, but is not really in power at this critical juncture in the history of the UK.

Despite last week's high political drama in Westminster, "nothing has changed", to coin one of her infamous phrases.

As Carolyn Fairbairn, director-general of the Confederation of British Industry, the leading business lobby, asserts: "Parliament remains in deadlock while the slope to the cliff edge deepens."

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Or so in all probability it seems. Yet underlying Mrs May's announcement on Monday and the paralysis of her UK government, there are potentially key developments now underway in the House of Commons that could be very significant, looking ahead to next week and February, when the next round of votes are held.

What this underlines is that, amid growing Brexit uncertainty, one of the few likelihoods is that Parliament will increasingly take more control of the fraught EU exit process as Brexit and Opposition MPs flex their muscles.

Take the examples of the Brexiteers, many of whose key figures were evidently chastened by the scale of Mrs May's loss last week. On Sunday, this led some of them, including Trade Secretary Liam Fox, to warn that Remain MPs are trying to "steal", "betray" or "plot" against Brexit.

BREXITEER ANXIETY

A further signal of growing Brexiteer anxiety over the outcome of the process also came on Sunday, when influential backbench MP Jacob Rees-Mogg called for right-of centre Conservatives and other leading Brexiteers from the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and beyond, to come together in the national interest.

What he refers to here is a split within the ranks of pro-Brexit supporters between pragmatists such as Mr Fox and leading Cabinet Minister Michael Gove who have backed Mrs May's deal, versus those who prefer a no-deal Brexit like Mr Rees-Mogg and Boris Johnson.

Given the increasing threat that some Brexiteers now perceive to their cherished political project, it is clear that some "no-dealers" like Mr Rees-Mogg are increasingly open to a compromise. As the leading Euro-skeptic said on Sunday: "If I had to choose between 'no deal' and Mrs May's original accord, I would have no hesitation of opting for a no-deal Brexit, but even Mrs May's deal would be better than not leaving at all."

This could be a crucial beginning of a shift in position that could yet see a substantial slice of the 118 Tory MPs, plus potentially the eight DUP MPs from Northern Ireland, who last week voted against Mrs May's deal softening their stance.

In so doing, especially if Mrs May can get concessions from Brussels on the so-called "Irish backstop", there remains the remarkable prospect that her deal could have a second lease of life, despite its multiple flaws.

It is this internal dynamic within the Brexiteer camp that helps explain why her Brexit "Plan B" is virtually the same as her "Plan A". For it seems overwhelmingly likely - for now at least - that rather than reach out to Opposition MPs, she will seek again to persuade her party and the DUP of the merits of the plan, despite the uncertainty of Brussels offering up any more concessions to her to facilitate this.

Yet, the reluctance of the EU-27 to compromise further is not the only reason why Mrs May and Brexiteers now face a real battle to realise a right-of-centre "hard" exit from the EU. For, as well as the uncertainty over the position of Brussels, Opposition MPs are seizing the initiative.

On Monday, for instance, the Opposition Labour Party submitted an amendment, to be considered as soon as next week, that calls for a vote of its own "softer" Brexit plan. This includes the prospect of remaining in the European customs union, plus the later possibility of a second public vote on Brexit if no option can secure a consensus in the House of Commons in coming weeks.

ARTICLE 50

Moreover, a leading Labour backbench MP, Yvette Cooper, published a Bill backed by senior cross-party MPs which would require - if the House of Commons fails to pass a Brexit withdrawal deal by Feb 26 - a vote to extend Article 50 beyond the end of March, which would be subject to the unanimous assent of the EU-27 too. The goal here is to prevent the government drifting into a no-deal Brexit that forecasts indicate could be economically calamitous.

Yet another amendment has been proposed by Hilary Benn, the Labour chair of the Brexit select committee, which would allow indicative votes on four options that MPs have advocated over the last few years, namely: Mrs May's deal; no deal; a renegotiation based on a Canada or Norway model; and a new referendum.

Amid this uncertain battle of wills in Westminster, there is one further likelihood beyond the House of Commons taking more control of Brexit. That is, the growing likelihood that the two-year Article 50 process may need to be extended, potentially till the summer.

Aside from the continuing political failure to pass a withdrawal deal, there is growing unlikelihood that London will have in place by end-March a new domestic legislative framework to enable Brexit. A backlog of at least six key UK exit Bills covering trade, agriculture, fisheries, healthcare, financial services and immigration must be passed before the nation can leave the EU.

Yet, with only around 60 days till the nation is scheduled to leave the EU, even if MPs and Lords sit at weekends, and cancel the scheduled February parliamentary recess, there may not now be enough time to pass all this key legislation before the UK's scheduled end-March EU exit.

Taken overall, beneath the permafrost of Mrs May's Brexit position, a thaw is underway in parliament that is seeing a rejuvenated battle of wills between Brexiteers and opposition MPs.

As March's deadlines close in, this means there is growing possibility that Article 50 will be extended beyond March with the possibility of yet more Brexit Groundhog Days to come.

  • The writer is an associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics