Second chance as May goes to brink

Editorial | Mary Ma 31 Jan 2019

The pound softened yesterday following an eventful day at Westminster that handed Prime Minister Theresa May a small victory.

May will fly to Brussels for the umpteenth time to reopen negotiations with European Union leaders on the backstop for a seamless Ireland-Northern Ireland border that had prevented her earlier Brexit deal from passing through parliament not long ago.

The sterling's softening reflected the sense of caution permeating not only the financial market but also the British public, who are keeping their fingers crossed that a deal can be reached in time for the exit that, until now, is still due to occur on March 29.

During the Tuesday debate, the Labour Party sought to upstage May by trying to seize control of the Brexit course via various motions, including one known as the Cooper amendment, tabled by Labour lawmaker Yvette Cooper that would have enabled MPs to pass a law to delay Brexit if no deal could be reached by February 26.

The motion failed to pass, although 17 Conservatives defected to support the Labour move. If approved, the motion would effectively end May's chances of securing new concessions from the EU to make a deal legally binding to end the backstop in future. Euroskeptics in the Leave camp are concerned the absence of a legal bind would allow the EU to keep the door open for Northern Ireland to break away from the United Kingdom to reunite with Ireland.

Curiously, the rebellion by the small group of Tory MPs was cancelled out by a mutiny of 14 of their Labour peers. The Labour bid to steal control of the business was defeated by 321 to 298 votes.

The outcome means May and her ministers retain control.

Equally interesting was the passage of a Tory motion - the Brady amendment moved by Conservative Graham Brady - that called for an "alternative arrangement" to the Irish backstop. Its passage gave May a mandate to take up the issue with Brussels to give the matter one final push on the border issue.

It's no less curious because the Tory motion was backed by a small number, seven in total, of Labour MPs in defiance of party whips.

It's evident that fears of a no-deal Brexit felt throughout parliament are creating pressure to produce a chemistry at Westminster, with MPs finally awakening to the need to place the nation before their parties.

As May insisted she wouldn't delay Brexit, she evidently adhered to her old plot of cliff strategy to play fears with her EU partners. It seems that she's confident the EU would feel the pressure increasingly as the day for divorce gets closer.

May is more experienced in dealing with EU leaders than anyone else in parliament. Therefore, perhaps she thinks she understands them better, and that they're used to digging in and won't reveal their bottom line until the very last moment.

It's a high-pressure game with stakes piling up on both sides. Will the EU give her that little legal guarantee?

It's possible.

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