Yvette Cooper has tabled an amendment to the government’s Brexit deal, which MPs are set to vote on again tomorrow, that aims to extend Article 50 unless Theresa May can get a withdrawal agreement approved by the end of February. It does this by taking over the business of parliament on 5th February – exactly a week after the new vote – when the backbench Labour MP will use the extra time to drive an entire bill through parliament from beginning to end. If passed, this is the piece of legislation that would see Brexit delayed to avoid ‘no deal’.
The Labour leadership is expected to back the Cooper amendment, which already has cross-party support – it is co-signed by Tories such as Nicky Morgan, Dominic Grieve and Nick Boles, plus SNP, Lib Dem and Plaid Cymru members. So far, so good. It looks like the Brady amendment, which sought to help the Prime Minister by demanding removal of the backstop, is going down the pan, with senior Brexiteers such as Bernard Jenkin dismissing the proposal. Of all the amendments laid down, the Cooper move therefore seems to have the best chance of success.
But there are a few snags. It is almost guaranteed that the group of Labour Leavers who have been most willing to defy the whip on Brexit – Kate Hoey, Graham Stringer, John Mann, plus now-independent Frank Field – will vote against it. Hoey and Stringer basically confirmed as much in their anti-‘people’s vote’ LabourList piece last week: “To remove the threat to the EU of no deal is the equivalent of a trade union negotiator telling the management they would never go on strike.”
Then there’s the Labour ‘inbetweeners’ – those who campaigned to remain but represent Leave seats and believe the 2016 result should be respected. Kevin Barron and Ian Austin fall under that criteria, and voted for May’s deal earlier this month. Having voted against May’s deal but still see getting a Brexit deal passed as the best outcome, Caroline Flint, Gareth Snell and Lisa Nandy are the most unpredictable of this group. Flint has confirmed she will vote against the Cooper amendment; Snell and Nandy are “not opposed but concerned”.
One might assume that Labour MPs of this type would be most concerned by appearances, i.e. the reaction of Leave-voting constituents to their representative voting to delay (and thus “frustrate”) Brexit. But they say “that ship has sailed”, and their worries relate far more to the practicalities of the move. It is pointed out that the Cooper amendment only prevents ‘no deal’ temporarily – to block it altogether requires revoking Article 50 or approving a deal. Gareth Snell told LabourList he had “genuine concerns” over whether “more parliamentary process” is a good use of time, when MPs could be focussed on “getting a deal that we all support”.
The length of the extension is contentious too. MPs are anxious about extending beyond European elections due to take place in May: Labour would have to contest them, but how would that look to the UK electorate? Rumours of a solution that would see a delegation of MPs act as MEPs are not helping either. Cooper has said that although her bill proposes nine months, this could be amended to reflect the Labour frontbench preference of just three. The latter would avoid the problem of EU elections taking place this year, but also raise the question: what’s the point? If a deal has to be reached by the end of June anyway, this change simply allows the Prime Minister to run down the clock for a few more months.
For that reason, Nandy told LabourList: “I’d support a request for an extension of Article 50 if there was a clear reason, for example (as we’ve proposed) in order to establish a citizens’ assembly. Without a clear reason, people will understandably think we’re just kicking this into the long grass and the ongoing chaos is making it impossible for local businesses.”
The unhappy compromise offered by Cooper’s delay does something binding, yes, but there are concerns that it is overly complicated and time-wasting. Jack Dromey’s one-line amendment (“and rejects the United Kingdom leaving the European Union without a Withdrawal Agreement and a Framework for the Future Relationship”), on the other hand, is thought to be appealingly direct and clearer in political will. Dromey could pull his submission tonight if he doesn’t want to risk taking support away from the Cooper amendment that he has co-signed, however. We must wait until tomorrow to see which amendments are selected by the Speaker, and whether Cooper’s will squeak through. The vote is set to be so tight that Labour MPs opting to abstain, rather than oppose, could make the difference.