For anyone but the geekiest of political geeks, this week has been a baffling one in British politics. Amendments are flying in all directions, the Speaker is no longer speaking to half the Conservative Party, and Theresa May's MPs are changing their minds on the merits of The Deal at a practically dizzying rate. So, in case you’ve taken your eye off the ball (you know, because you have a life), here's a digest of the most important latest developments in Westminster:
On Monday, French and Irish ministers made clear that the legally binding text which makes up the Withdrawal Agreement is not open for renegotiation. It didn’t come as much of a surprise (in fact it’s exactly what the EU council said in December) but will have felt like another badly timed blow for Theresa May, whose only hope now is that her MPs will accept the EU’s non-legally binding assurances (verbal gymnastics) that the backstop isn’t forever.
Tuesday evening saw MPs back, by 303 votes to 296, Yvette Cooper's amendment to the Finance Bill to restrict the Government’s powers to prepare for a no deal Brexit. Given no deal is the legal default if Parliament can’t agree on a deal, the move was dubbed as “highly irresponsible” by a number of MPs and commentators. More significantly, though, the vote showed for the first time there is a majority in the Commons against no deal. Incidentally, it was also the first time in 41 years a government has been defeated on a finance bill. More bad optics for May.
After a damp squib PMQs, all hell broke loose in the Commons on Wednesday as Conservative MPs queued up to criticise Speaker Bercow for selecting the Dominic Grieve amendment - which requires the Government to come forward with a Plan B within three days if the meaningful vote is lost next week - against the advice of the House of Commons clerks. The amendment itself isn’t that significant (May would have had to come up with a new plan pretty sharpish either way, and it sounds as though No.10 will get around it with a vague statement promising a re-vote), but, as Daniel Johnson explains in his leader today, the fact that Bercow picked it is very important indeed. One thing is for certain, the relationship between Tory MPs and the controversial Speaker is now beyond repair.
Yesterday morning was, in relative terms, good for the Government. George Freeman, a Remainer and prominent supporter of the ‘Norway option’, became the first MP to take himself off the naughty list by publicly announcing that he will now (with a heavy heart) be supporting the Prime Minister’s deal. He was soon followed by Trudi Harrison. Unfortunately, the afternoon did not go quite so well: research released by BBC Politics found that the Prime Minister is likely to lose the meaningful vote on Tuesday by a majority of 228, with the number of MPs opposing up by 19 since the delay last month.
How does that saying go? Two steps forwards, 19 steps back…