Brexit vote delay: what is Theresa May’s game plan?

PM expected to head back to Brussels to renegotiate controversial withdrawal agreement

Theresa May leaves 10 Downing Street
Theresa May leaves 10 Downing Street vowing to contest the vote with everything she’s got
(Image credit: Adrian Dennis/AFP/Getty Images)

Tomorrow’s crunch vote on Theresa May’s controversial withdrawal agreement with the European Union has been delayed.

In a statement to the House of Commons this afternoon, the prime minister admitted that her changes to the Irish backstop detailed in the draft deal “do not offer a sufficient number of colleagues the reassurance they need”.

Downing Street had been insisting the vote would go ahead, despite predictions of a crushing defeat for May.

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Initially, it was thought that the Government would have to win a Commons motion in order to delay Tuesday’s vote, but an insider source told The Guardian’s Jessica Elgot that this was not the case.

“We are replacing the business with a new statement but it isn’t a motion and therefore isn’t voteable,” the source said.

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A meaningful vote “could take place next week or even be delayed until early January, although this would allow less time for the ensuing Brexit legislation to be passed through Parliament before 29 March”, says the newspaper.

May’s decision to pull the vote was taken “after government whips concluded they were likely to be defeated by a three-figure margin”, reports BuzzFeed News. The PM has been lobbied to pull the plug by two separate groups of cabinet ministers over the past few days, and spoke to cabinet colleagues on Monday morning in a hastily arranged conference call, the website adds.

The plan “appears to be that May will go to Brussels and attempt to win some caveats on the backstop to boost support for her deal”, says The Spectator.

According to the New Statesman’s Patrick Maguire, Downing Street “has told the Government’s PPS [Parliamentary Private Secretary] team that May will return to Brussels to seek to renegotiate the backstop”.

However, the EU this morning insisted that there could be no changes to the withdrawal agreement.

Irish PM Leo Varadkar told reporters: “The withdrawal agreement, including the Irish backstop is the only agreement on the table. It’s not possible to reopen any aspect of that agreement without reopening all aspects.”

The best the UK can hope for is a non-binding statement clarifying the contents of the withdrawal agreement, he said. “I have no difficulty with statements that clarify what’s in the withdrawal agreement but no statement of clarification can contradict what’s in it,” Varadkar added.

That message was echoed by a spokesperson for European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, who told journalists in Brussels: “We will not renegotiate.”

Given this response, it remains unclear what May expects to achieve by attempting to go back to Brussels. In short, “May’s premiership remains in real trouble and a confidence vote could still follow”, says The Spectator.

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