As the government attempts to (finally) finalise Brexit, we take a detailed look at what’s happened so far… and what could happen next
We’re meant to be leaving the European Union in 66 days, but the current Brexit plan is as clear as mud.
It’s hard enough just keeping up with who is in charge of the Brexit department these days (it’s the Minister Stephen Barclay, by the way), let alone with what’s actually going on.
But you’ve probably realised by now that even Harry Houdini wouldn’t be able to escape the Brexit chatter. So, if you’ve been hitting the political snooze button lately, read on, and you’ll soon be up to date with what’s happening. At least for now…
What is happening with Brexit?
Let’s start with a little refresh.
The meaningful vote
Last Tuesday (15 Jan) the Prime Minister lost a critical vote in Parliament on her Brexit plan. She has been negotiating her deal with the EU for the best part of two years, but when it came down to it, 432 MPs couldn’t bring themselves to vote for it, compared to just 202 who could. The astonishing result made history as the biggest ever government defeat in the House of Commons, and in normal times, this would have signalled the end of Theresa May’s time in charge. A Prime Minister who can’t win a vote on their main policy would usually have no choice but to resign. But Brexit’s thrown all the normal rules out of the window, and Theresa May has ploughed on.
The confidence vote
This time last week (Wednesday 16 Jan) there was another all-important vote. The Labour Party - the official opposition - said they didn’t have confidence in the Prime Minister and her Government to carry out Brexit. “If you can’t win such an important vote, you shouldn’t be in Number 10”, they said.
Following this, everyone then voted on the Prime Minister’s ability to govern. In total, 325 MPs voted for her, compared to 306 who wanted her gone. However, she only survived the confidence challenge because Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party (the DUP), who prop her up in government, voted for her. Without them, her time as PM really would have been up.
So, to round off a bloody awful couple of days, the PM addressed the public on the steps of Number 10 and said she was ready to listen. She assured us she would be holding meetings with MPs from across the political spectrum, including some of her own colleagues, to try and to find a way to make her deal work. A breakthrough perhaps? Not quite.
Meetings, meetings, meetings
You know those meetings that could have been an email? Well, the PM has been having a lot of those over the past week. Meetings with the DUP, meetings with the Liberal Democrats, and meetings with MPs from her own party. Some are opposed to her deal because they think it’s too ‘soft’ and doesn’t reflect the true meaning of Brexit, some think it’s too ‘hard’, and some think the UK needs another say on Brexit and want a second referendum.
What is soft Brexit?
A soft Brexit refers to a Brexit deal that keeps close ties between the UK and the EU. For example, we’d continue to trade freely across Europe in what’s known as the single market, and along with other EU citizens, we’d be able to continue to live and work in the EU.
What is hard Brexit?
A hard Brexit rejects the whole idea of close ties. The aim of a hard, or ‘clean’ Brexit as some people call it, is to get out of EU structures like the single market entirely, and make it on our own.
While the PM has been meeting with MPs who want a whole range of Brexit options – from hard, soft or no Brexit deal at all – someone she still hasn’t met yet is Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the opposition. Corbyn says he won’t meet her until she rules out the possibility of leaving without a deal.
What is a no deal Brexit?
This is the idea that we would leave the EU immediately on 29 March without any agreements in place about what our future relationship would look like. Some say it would be better than the PM’s ‘bad deal’, while others say it would be total, utter chaos. Either way, the Prime Minister won’t rule out leaving without a deal in place, so we’re currently in a bit of a deadlock.
Plan B and the even more meaningful vote
Last Monday (21 Jan) we got a bit of an idea about Plan B. The Prime Minister penned another statement and updated MPs on her new plan, after the first one got so spectacularly rejected. But there was a strong sense of deja vu in Parliament: the new plan looked a lot like the old plan. The only significant new detail was the announcement that the £65 fee that millions of EU citizens had been expected to pay to continue to live in the UK after Brexit, would be waived. MPs welcomed that news, but were left waiting for updates on other parts of the deal – the most important being a solution to the dreaded Northern Ireland backstop. We will find have to wait until next Tuesday (29 January) to see if Plan B evolves further.
What is the Brexit backstop?
The backstop is intended to be a safety net to prevent a physical border from returning between Ireland and Northern Ireland after Brexit. At the moment there is an open border as both Ireland and Northern Ireland (as part of the UK) are members of the EU. This won’t be the case after Brexit - Ireland will still be in, and the UK including Northern Ireland will be out - so there needs to be a way of having some border checks between the two. The backstop is the master plan to prevent this, and it works like this…
In the event that the UK and the EU can’t reach a final agreement on how they’ll trade after Brexit, the backstop will come into action. Obviously both sides want to reach an agreement, but this is the insurance plan if one can’t be achieved in time. In that scenario, Northern Ireland would continue to operate under the same rules as Ireland (and of course the EU) so there would be no need for border checks and customs, because they’d all be in the same trading club. Sorted! Right? Not quite.
The problem with that plan, is that instead of a border between Northern Ireland and Ireland, there’d actually be one - albeit it in the sea - between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK. So Northern Ireland would be operating under different rules to the rest of the UK, and no one likes that option either.
Bored of borders yet? Well, put it this way: without a change to the backstop, and a solution to the border problem between Northern Ireland and Ireland, the Prime Minister’s plan won’t get enough votes to pass into policy, and at the moment her deal is the only one on offer.
So what’s next?
The Prime Minister now has less than a week to make changes to her plan before Parliament gives their verdict in another Meaningful Vote next Tuesday (29 Jan). But while May is busy jetting off to the EU’s HQ in Brussels to try and renegotiate her deal, or frantically trying to persuade MPs here to vote for it this time around, MPs from all parties are busy plotting. Some are hoping they can change the Prime Minister’s deal altogether by putting forward alterations or amendments to her plan, which can then be voted on next Tuesday. These amendments, if successful, could end up changing how the Brexit deal looks pretty dramatically.
Will Brexit happen or can Brexit be stopped?
The answer could all depend on these amendments. For example, some MPs want to make sure we can’t leave without a deal. Others, want to try and get a second referendum. Some want to delay Brexit from happening, whilst there are some who seek to take control of the Brexit process out of the Prime Minister’s hands altogether. We won’t know what changes will be selected and voted on until next Tuesday, and finally then, two months out from Brexit day, we could start to see what form Brexit might take.
Will there be a second Brexit referendum?
It’s possible. If MPs vote through proposals to have a second vote, another referendum could be on the cards. We could be asked to choose between all the possible options, including staying in the EU full stop. This would please some, but infuriate others, but as the whole Brexit process has proved, nothing is certain when it comes to Parliamentary procedure.
There’s still a long way to go on the Brexit journey, but one thing’s for sure: it’s about to get very interesting.
Rachel Bradley is a Political Producer for ITV News