There are reports that Conservative ERG MPs are considering not voting Sir Graham Brady’s amendment being tabled tonight. Sir Brady’s amendment calls for the Northern Ireland backstop to be replaced with alternative arrangements to avoid a hard border, while stating support for the Withdrawal Agreement “subject to this change to deal with issues relating to the Irish border by a means other than the current backstop”. You can read Sir Brady’s reasoning for the amendment here. Voting against the amendment would be a mistake.
The purpose of the amendment is two fold – 1. to unite the Conservative party and 2. to send a message to Brussels that Parliament would vote for a deal that time limited or ditched altogether the backstop. Both are worthwhile goals, as the backstop is an outrageous assault on British sovereignty and a united party is better than a divided one. However, neither of those reasons in themselves are a reason to vote for the amendment.
The Withdrawal Agreement has many flaws beyond the backstop that makes it very questionable whether to vote for it even if the backstop was gone/time-limited. You can read the Spectator’s 40 horrors found in the agreement here, as well as Colonel Richard Kemp’s concern for security issues here. With that being said, what is important at this moment is making sure, as I wrote last week, that Brexit happens on 29th March and in the “cleanest” version possible. Thus, the question for Conservative Eurosceptic MPs becomes how best to achieve that goal.
Voting for Sir Brady’s (along with voting down Ms. Cooper’s) amendment brings the advantage of keeping the Prime Minister working towards finding a deal that satisfies Tory Brexiteers and the DUP rather than finding a “soft Brexit” compromise with Labour. May’s inner circle are very divided on which path to choose, and reports are that it was Philip May, along with Brandon Lewis, who convinced the Prime Minister to try to unite the party rather than seek a cross-party consensus – over the objections of the arch-Remainer Gavin Barwell.
If Brady’s amendment fails, and especially if Cooper’s amendment passes, it is very possible that the government will pivot to the “will of parliament” i.e. some kind of soft Brexit that is barely Brexit at all; possibly Nick Boles’s Norway + plan that would keep the United Kingdom in the EU Single Market and Customs Union. The EU would likely agree to this, as it would make the UK an effective non-voting member of the EU with *maybe* independent fishing rights. This would be a worse deal than what Norway and other EFTA members have because the UK could not even make its own independent trade deals. Though a large amount of Conservative MPs would not support such a deal, it is certainly possible that the government could whip enough of them to support the deal to ally with pro-deal Labour MPs. Such a scenario would certainly destroy the Conservative Party and be a betrayal of the Brexit vote. In the absence of agreement, the government could pass legislation to delay Brexit indefinitely (or scupper it entirely) to avoid a WTO Brexit.
Conversely, if the Brady amendment passes, and especially if the Cooper amendment is voted down, May will stay on side with trying to appease Tory Brexiteers and the DUP. This has the advantage of having the clock run down to March 29th and makes either a tolerable deal or a WTO Brexit more likely. The closer Brexit day becomes the more likely the EU is to offer concessions to the UK to make a deal. The urgency of time means that even if Theresa May does come back with a new deal, the ERG and DUP will be free to vote it down if it is not sufficiently changed. Voting for the amendment now means more freedom to decide whether to vote for a new deal or proceed under the statutory default of a WTO Brexit on 29 March 2019.
It is certainly possible that the egomanical and Eurofanatical Speaker will not call Sir Brady’s amendment. However, if the Speaker does (as he should), it is imperative that Eurosceptic MPs be strategic and vote for the amendment. Time is on our side – but we need the clock to continue to run down. The PM also must not be given an excuse to turn to Labour MPs to further water down Brexit.
Finally, shortly before publication of this article, there was agreed a breakthrough compromise between the leaders of the ERG (as well as Boris Johnson) and leading Tory Remainers called the Malthouse Compromise – named after Housing Minister Kit Malthouse who brought the two sides together. You can read about the outline and the plan itself here and here. Though this agreement isn’t perfect, it is a viable plan that the Prime Minister can offer to the EU on a take it or leave it basis. This sign of Conservative unity and commitment to Brexit may be a new dawn breaking – it is up to Conservative MPs to show that commitment and unity by voting for the Brady, and against the Cooper, amendment.