Tomorrow’s Brexit vote has gone from being billed the ‘Valentine’s Day massacre’ to threatening a desperately dull anti-climax, and then back again to being quite interesting. This latest development comes courtesy of the European Research Group, which has said it could vote against the government on the motion that has been tabled because they object to its wording. This is another one of those neutral motions expressing government policy, which allows MPs to table motions expressing their own views. It currently reads:
‘That this House welcomes the Prime Minister’s statement of 12 February 2019; reiterates its support for the approach to leaving the EU expressed by this House on 29 January 2019 and notes that discussions between the UK and the EU on the Northern Ireland backstop are ongoing.’
The problem that the ERG has with this motion is that by supporting the approach expressed by the House on 29 January, MPs are effectively saying that no deal is off the table, thanks to the motion tabled by Caroline Spelman and Jack Dromey that MPs passed on that date. This was not a legally-binding motion, but Spelman has argued that it is ‘morally-binding’. Brexiteer Tories want tomorrow’s motion to make clear that no deal remains an option, arguing that otherwise Theresa May will have a much weaker hand in her dealings with Brussels.
Downing Street is digging in, arguing that no deal does remain on the table anyway, and that it won’t be redrafting the motion. The ERG hasn’t yet said it will definitely vote against the motion, but the threat is there. Though a defeat tomorrow wouldn’t formally change the government’s negotiating stance, it will undermine May’s ability to talk to European leaders, as it will give the impression that the British parliament isn’t really going to agree on a deal anyway. May’s pitch to the European negotiators is that she has a mandate from Parliament for a deal that will then be approved by MPs. The risk is that tomorrow’s vote could be interpreted as a contradiction of that.