The British Parliament has ended a week of important votes on leaving Europe with the battle lines more clear but still stuck in a stand-off.
Lee Duffield says the House of Commons has continued with a struggle to budge the Conservative Party Prime Minister Theresa May from the stand she has been taking.
MEMBERS OF THE BRITISH PARLIAMENT voted 413 to 202 on Thursday in London to ask the European Union for a postponement of Britain’s exit now just a fortnight away — 29 March.
The “for” side included a majority of Conservative MPs, who voted with Labour, the Scottish and Welsh nationalists, the Liberal Democrats, Greens and independents; against a rump of Government Members, one independent and the conservative Democratic Unionists from Northern Ireland.
The application to Brussels would have to be made by the Prime Minister as lead negotiator and despite the pile-up of numbers, she has dug in on the terms.
She says she will seek a three-month delay but says the template must be the deal already negotiated with Brussels and wants yet another vote on it next week.
MPs have already twice knocked back that deal, called the draft Withdrawal Agreement by big margins and she has conceded a back-up proposal: if knocked back again she will ask Brussels for a longer extension.
A question mark hangs over what might happen in that time, even if the other EU member countries accept it unanimously — as required under their rules.
The week that was
The Thursday vote was actually the third vote in a set of three that were programmed for Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, London time.
The first, vote one, was the blockbuster rejection of the Withdrawal Agreement, that “deal” negotiated by the Government with the European Union. It took place on Tuesday in London. The numbers were 391-242 and it followed up a similar defeat of essentially the same proposition in January.
Explaining chaos: Buffoonery, skullduggery and betrayal
Vote two took place on Wednesday and this was the one that came with a display of yelling, horse-trading and treading-on-toes in the over-crowded House of Commons, which does not have enough seats.
Vote two was the one that calls out for explanation, ringed around with so much uproar in the Parliament — a great tale of buffoonery, skulduggery and betrayal.
It was set up to decide on whether Britain might just walk out of the EU without any Withdrawal Agreement, should it fail to finally agree on the deal. Most forecasts say a no-deal separation would cause a major economic recession, especially in Britain so a wholesale rejection was anticipated.
Here is an attempt to explain what took place. Out of many interviews, speeches and other sources it especially draws on two or three reports by BBC News which came up with some of the best sense-making.
Wednesday: The story of vote two
The Members of Parliament started off on Wednesday expected to vote for a Government motion to take a no-deal exit off the table — once-and-for-all.
That was scheduled as the second main vote for the week and it was widely expected to easily succeed.
On the day, the Prime Minister unexpectedly came up with a different and curious version for vote two. It said that if the UK did not have a deal ready, it should not leave the EU on the set date, 29 March.
The idea of this motion, with the date attached to it, was that: if a “no-deal exit” was kept on life support in such a way, it might give the Government some leverage in its various negotiations and political manoeuvrings.
However, it was headed off with an amendment to the motion, brought up by a Labour MP and a Conservative MP together. Their proposal went back to the original plan for vote two: did the Parliament want to exit from the EU without any deal?
Bizarre manoeuvring in the Parliament
Bizarre manoeuvring was in full swing and pressure was applied so the Conservative MP bailed out.
By then the Labour Opposition had sniffed an opportunity to split the Government and get a win, so another of its MPs, Yvette Cooper, put her name to the amendment and it went ahead.
It succeeded in a tight vote, 312 to 308, late Wednesday London time.
Meanwhile, on the floor of Parliament, the Government of Theresa May now found that the amendment had altered the meaning of its curious version of vote two — and if passed it would indeed rule out a no-deal "Brexit".
Some outlandish tactics continue: a declared free vote for Conservative Members was revoked and they were told to vote against the Government’s own, amended motion.
As the BBC then reported:
'That tactic failed. Government ministers defied those orders and there were claims Mrs May had lost control of her party.
The updated motion, to reject a no-deal Brexit under any circumstances, was passed by 321 to 278, a majority of 43.'
Yet there is more, because of the UK's legislation commits it to go through with its secession from Europe:
Wednesday's no-deal vote is not binding — under current law the UK could still leave without a deal on 29 March, unless an extension is agreed with the EU.
The episode did show clearly, as the British reports are saying, that the House of Commons is opposed to leaving Europe if no deal can be settled.
It also showed up once again divisions in the Conservative Government, and the doggedness of its leader, the Prime Minister, in putting up the draft Withdrawal Agreement again and again.
That campaign to wear-down resistance remains as her best option given that the European Union is saying it must be the present agreement as negotiated and that it is up to the British to find a way.
'What for? Why do you need a prolongation? So is it for organising a new referendum, new elections or not?'
Donald Tusk, the President of the European Council, which is made up of Ministers from the EU member countries, was more sympathetic, saying he would argue for giving the UK its extension of time.
With all that going on, pressure has been building for a new British election or a second referendum on secession from the EU — still rejected on the conservative side of politics.
Media editor Dr Lee Duffield is a former ABC foreign correspondent, political journalist and academic.
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