May’s defeat puts pressure back on Brussels

Matthew Elliott, former CEO Vote Leave

The former CEO of Vote Leave Matthew Elliott is encouraged by the Government’s record Parliamentary defeat. He thinks the ball is now firmly back with the EU to make concessions on the Brexit deal – and there is precedent to suggest they will.

The Government’s defeat in the Brexit Meaningful vote by 230 votes (with 202 in favour and 432 against) is the biggest defeat suffered by a Government since records began, and is at the very top end of where expectations were set.

Now MPs will debate a motion of no confidence in the Government which – with both the DUP and the European Research Group confirming that they will support the Government – will undoubtedly be defeated.

Thanks to the Speaker John Bercow’s ruling last week, the Government has to table a motion in the House by Monday. Note that it doesn’t need to be a new plan, or a new negotiating strategy. The motion could simply seek the support of the House to continue the negotiations and – crucially – it won’t necessarily be voted on.

The complicating factor in analysing ‘where next from here?’ is the impossibility in predicting what John Bercow will do. Some say he is rewriting the parliamentary rule book. Others suggest that the notion of a “Parliamentary coup” was simply an attempt by No 10 to frighten Conservative MPs into supporting the Withdrawal Agreement.

It is worth remembering that motions tabled by the Opposition or back-benchers cannot overturn statute law. And even if the Speaker changed the rules to allow a Private Members’ Bill to propose changes to the negotiating strategy or a second referendum, it would still require a money resolution tabled by the Government for it to become law.


I expect the EU to shift their position and offer to add a legally binding protocol to the Withdrawal Agreement setting a time limit on the backstop

The only outcome which is currently on the statute book is for Britain to leave with No Deal on the 29th March, so this remains a real possibility, and possibly the most likely outcome.

Some commentators are suggesting that the Government’s defeat was so large that the EU will conclude that there is no point in offering any further concessions because nothing will satisfy Parliament. I disagree with this, because I am picking up a greater desire to avoid a No Deal Brexit.

What I expect to happen is for the EU to shift their position and offer to add a legally binding protocol to the Withdrawal Agreement setting a time limit on the backstop. The Danish protocol to the Maastricht Treaty, agreed in the wake of the initial referendum defeat, provides a precedent for this outcome.

If a legally binding protocol is proposed, this might be enough to bring the DUP on side, which could well reduce the Conservative rebellion from the 118 it was, to something more like 20 to 25. At this level, the Meaningful vote could pass.

What are the other possibilities? I doubt there will be an early election. Theresa May was burned badly by the early election in 2017, so I can’t see her making this mistake again.  Very few Conservative MPs want to risk an early election.

And I don’t think there are the numbers in Parliament for a second referendum. Corbyn is lukewarm on the idea, and it would splinter the Conservative Party.

So the ball is now very much in the court of the European Union. If they agree a legally binding protocol to the Withdrawal Agreement on the backstop, I can see it passing. If they don’t, the stage is set for a No Deal Brexit.

Matthew Elliott was the CEO of Vote Leave and is a Senior Adviser to MHP and Editor-at-Large of BrexitCentral. He tweets @matthew_elliott