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The Government’s resolution seeking approval for the Withdrawal Agreement (WA) and the Political Declaration (PD) on future UK-EU relations agreed by the European Council in November 2018 was defeated in the House of Commons on 15 January 2019 by 432 votes to 202.

The Prime Minister has subsequently set out her intention to seek further negotiations with the EU on the WA, in order to obtain changes to the most contentious element of the WA, the Northern Ireland/Ireland backstop, that would be acceptable to a majority in the House of Commons. EU leaders have however stated repeatedly that they are unwilling to re-open renegotiations on the WA, but would consider making changes to the PD.

In a meeting with the Prime Minister on 7 February 2019, the President of the European Commission reiterated that the EU is not willing to reopen the WA but expressed openness to adding wording to the PD in order to be more ambitious in terms of content with regards to the future UK-EU relationship. The Prime Minister and the Commission President will meet again before the end of February to take stock of discussions.

If the Government is unable to reach agreement with the EU on changes to the WA or PD that command majority support in the House of Commons then there is a heightened prospect of the UK leaving the EU without a deal on 29 March 2019, unless the Article 50 period is extended or sufficient MPs change their minds and vote for the existing texts.

The Leader of the Opposition, Jeremy Corbyn wrote to the Prime Minister on 6 February and suggested the Labour party could support the WA if changes to the PD, including a commitment to a permanent UK-EU customs union, were enshrined in law. The Government has however rejected the proposal for a customs union as it would prevent the UK from pursuing an independent trade policy.

The Prime Minister has stated her opposition to extending Article 50. The Leader of the Opposition has however suggested that an Article 50 extension is now inevitable given the legislation that needs to be passed prior to exit day and the preparations required if the UK is to leave without a deal. EU leaders have indicated a willingness to extend Article 50 for a specific purpose and time limited period, but not to re-open negotiations on the WA.

The Withdrawal Agreement and EU assurances on the backstop and future negotiations

Following the endorsement by the European Council on 25 November 2018 of the Withdrawal Agreement (WA) and the Political Declaration (PD) setting out the framework for the future EU-UK relationship, the House of Commons vote to approve both the WA and PD was originally scheduled for 11 December 2018.[1] This was postponed by the Prime Minister in recognition of the widespread opposition to the WA in the House of Commons. The Prime Minister said that she would be seeking additional assurances from the EU on the most contentious aspect of the WA, the Northern Ireland/Ireland backstop.[2]

Following further talks between the UK Government and EU leaders, the Conclusions adopted by the EU27 leaders at the European Council meeting on 13 December stated with regard to the WA: “The Union stands by this agreement and intends to proceed with its ratification. It is not open for renegotiation”. However, the EU27 leaders sought to reassure the UK of the intended temporary nature of the backstop should it need to come into force and that the EU would “use its best endeavours to negotiate and conclude expeditiously a subsequent agreement that would replace the backstop”.

In an exchange of letters between Prime Minister Theresa May and the Presidents of the European Council (Donald Tusk) and European Commission (Jean-Claude Juncker) on 14 January 2019, the EU sought to provide further assurances to the UK. The EU letter confirmed a “shared commitment” with the UK to not seeing the backstop enter into force, since “it would represent a suboptimal trading arrangement for both sides”. It also confirmed that the Commission “is determined” to prioritise in its work programme discussion of proposals “that might replace the backstop with alternative arrangements”, possibly using “facilitative arrangements and technologies”.[3]

Commons Rejection of WA

In the rescheduled House of Commons vote on 15 January 2019, the WA was rejected by 432 votes to 202, a majority of 230.

In her statement on 15 January following the vote, the Prime Minister said she would hold a series of meetings with colleagues, the DUP and “senior parliamentarians” in an attempt to find a deal that could gain the support of Parliament.[4] On 16 January Theresa May survived a vote of confidence in her government and renewed her invitation to colleagues and senior MPs from across the House to meet her for talks on reaching consensus on a Brexit ‘Plan B’. Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, called on Labour MPs not to engage in talks with the Government, although some did.

In a statement on 15 January following the House of Commons vote rejecting the WA, Commission President Juncker maintained that the WA was a “fair compromise and the best possible deal” and “the only way to ensure an orderly withdrawal”. In a speech to the European Parliament the following day, the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier also insisted that the negotiated WA represented the “best possible compromise” and its ratification remained “necessary”. He also said that “the backstop which we have agreed with the United Kingdom must remain a backstop and it must remain credible”.

With regard to the future relationship, Mr Barnier said that if the UK chose “to change its red lines, and to be more ambitious and go beyond a simple free trade deal in our future relationship, then the EU would be ready to immediately support this evolution and respond favourably”. It was up to the UK Government to clarify how it wished to proceed on organising an “orderly withdrawal” and how “it wants to build an ambitious and long-lasting partnership”.[5]

Government statement on Brexit and votes on motion, 29 January 2019

On Monday 21 January 2019 Theresa May made a statement in the Commons (in accordance with the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018) setting out how the Government “intends to proceed” in relation to the Article 50 negotiations[6] and tabled an amendable neutral motion saying that Parliament had considered the statement. The motion was debated and voted upon on 29 January.

Several amendments were tabled to the motion. These included amendments which would give Parliament more time to debate more options; to give Parliament the opportunity to hold indicative votes on the various options; to prevent a no-deal Brexit; and to change constitutional practice by giving Parliament powers to control Commons business and take control of the UK’s next Brexit moves.

Among the amendments voted upon in relation to the Government motion on the Brexit process in the House of Commons on 29 January 2019 was one from Dominic Grieve MP to set aside specific days in the House of Commons to debate different options on Brexit and the future relationship with the EU.[7] This was envisaged as a way of reaching a consensus in Parliament on the way forward and possibly enable a revised agreement with the EU. However, this amendment was defeated by 321 votes to 301.  

Another defeated amendment, tabled by Yvette Cooper MP, would have guaranteed parliamentary time for her Private Member’s Bill which in turn would give the Commons the opportunity to insist that the Prime Minister seeks an extension of Article 50 until the end of 2019 if the House of Commons had not approved a withdrawal agreement by 26 February 2019. The Cooper amendment was defeated by 321 votes to 298. An amendment tabled by Rachel Reeves MP, to seek a two-year extension of article 50 if there is not a deal in place by 26 February was also defeated, by 322 votes to 32.

The House of Commons did vote in favour of the amendment by Graham Brady MP, also supported by the Government, which indicated that the support of the House for the WA would be contingent upon “replacing” the backstop with “alternative arrangements.”

An amendment tabled by Caroline Spelman MP, rejecting the possibility of the UK leaving the EU without a ratified withdrawal agreement and agreed framework for the future relationship, was also approved by 318 votes to 310. However, this amendment has no direct legal effect[8].

In responding to the approval of the Brady amendment, the Prime Minister said:

We will now take this mandate forward and seek to obtain legally binding changes to the withdrawal agreement that deal with concerns on the backstop while guaranteeing no return to a hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland.

The President of the European Council Donald Tusk responded on 30 January 2019:

The EU position is clear and consistent. The Withdrawal Agreement is not open for renegotiation. Yesterday, we found out what the UK doesn’t want. But we still don’t know what the UK does want.

In responding to the Prime Minister’s statement following the debate, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, said that as the House had “emphatically voted to reject the no-deal option” he would now be prepared to enter talks with the Prime Minister to discuss where progress might be made to reach a deal which Labour is prepared to support. These talks took place the next day.

Proposals for Alternative arrangements to Backstop

On 30 January 2019 the Prime Minister’s spokesman told reporters that Mrs May was considering “three possible alternative arrangements to the so-called Irish backstop”. The BBC reported on 4 February that the alternatives to the backstop that the Prime Minister wants to discuss with EU leaders include: a “trusted trader” scheme to avoid physical checks on goods flowing through the border; “mutual recognition” of rules with the EU; and “technological” solutions.

In an article in The Telegraph (2 February) Theresa May wrote that the government was pursuing a three-pronged approach in seeking changes to the backstop. Firstly, it would explore “alternative arrangements” to the backstop, secondly, a time-limit to the backstop, and thirdly, a unilateral break clause. Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay will lead on the first option, while Attorney-General Geoffrey Cox is looking at how to persuade the EU that the other two options are viable.

Building on the proposals for exploring alternative arrangements backed by Conservative MPs (the Malthouse compromise[9]), the Prime Minister has set up an “Alternative Arrangements Working Group”, made up of Conservative MPs from the “leave” and “remain” camps. The group met for the first time on 4 February.

Statements by Tusk, Juncker and Varadkar, 6 February

European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and the Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar met on 6 February, and issued a joint statement, reaffirming that the “Withdrawal Agreement is the best and only deal possible” and “is not open for renegotiation”. Furthermore, they said:

The backstop is an integral part of the Withdrawal Agreement. While we hope the backstop will not need to be used, it is a necessary legal guarantee to protect peace and to ensure there will be no return to a hard border on the island of Ireland, while protecting the integrity of our Single Market and the Customs Union.

In their joint press conference Juncker said that he “cannot accept the idea, which is circulating around, that the withdrawal agreement could be re-opened” and that we “cannot re-open the discussion on the backstop”. Juncker said this is the position of the EU27 and also of the Commission. Mr Juncker added:

So-called alternative arrangements can never replace the backstop. We need the bacsktop. We need the withdrawal agreement. And, when it comes to future relations, we can have a look into alternative arrangements. But they can never replace the backstop. There is no way to have unilateral jumping out of the backstop because the backstop is needed as a guarantee. A safety net is not a safety net if it can be destroyed by the unilateral action of one of the parties.

Mr Varadkar said:

I do have a concern about this idea around alternative arrangements. We need to bear in mind that this majority that did exist in the House of Commons for “alternative arrangements” probably only existed because “alternative arrangements” can mean whatever you want whatever you want them to mean. I don’t believe that would have passed if people actually had to get into the detail of what alternatives might mean or might not mean.[10]

In a separate joint press conference with Mr Varadkar, President of the European Council Donald Tusk reiterated that the EU27 had decided at the December European Council that the Withdrawal Agreement was “not open for renegotiation”, and said he looked forward to hearing from Prime Minister May “a realistic suggestion on how to end the impasse”.

Mr Tusk said the that Irish border issue and the need to preserve the peace process remained the EU’s “top priority”. Mr Tusk said that the “EU is first and foremost a peace project”, that it would “not gamble with peace or put a sell-by date on reconciliation” and this “is why we insist on the backstop.”

Ahead of planned talks with Theresa May the next day, Mr Tusk said the Prime Minister needed to give the EU “a believable guarantee for peace in Northern Ireland” so that “the UK will leave the EU as a trusted friend”.

He said that he hoped “the UK Government will present ideas that will both respect this point of view and at the same time command a stable and clear majority in the House of Commons”.

Mr Tusk also commented: “I’ve been wondering what that special place in hell looks like, for those who promoted Brexit, without even a sketch of a plan how to carry it out safely”.

Referring to those in the UK who wanted to reverse the decision to leave the EU, Mr Tusk said: “I have always been with you, with all my heart. But the facts are unmistakable. At the moment, the pro-Brexit stance of the UK Prime Minister, and the Leader of the Opposition, rules out this question”.

Further UK-EU talks, 7 February

The Prime Minister held further talks with the President of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker and President of the European Council Donald Tusk on 7 February. The Times reported that Mrs May had suggested three options for changing the backstop: a time limit on its operation (her preferred choice); alterative arrangements, including the use of technology to avoid a hard border in Ireland; and a unilateral exit clause.

Following their meeting, Mrs May and Mr Juncker issued a joint statement which said:

The prime minister described the context in the UK Parliament, and the motivation behind last week’s vote in the House of Commons seeking a legally binding change to the terms of the backstop. She raised various options for dealing with these concerns in the context of the withdrawal agreement in line with her commitments to the Parliament.

President Juncker underlined that the EU27 will not reopen the withdrawal agreement, which represents a carefully balanced compromise between the European Union and the UK, in which both sides have made significant concessions to arrive at a deal. President Juncker however expressed his openness to add wording to the political declaration agreed by the EU27 and the UK in order to be more ambitious in terms of content and speed when it comes to the future relationship between the European Union and the UK. President Juncker drew attention to the fact that any solution would have to be agreed by the European parliament and the EU27.

The discussion was robust but constructive. Despite the challenges, the two leaders agreed that their teams should hold talks as to whether a way through can be found that would gain the broadest possible support in the UK parliament and respect the guidelines agreed by the European council. The prime minister and the president will meet again before the end of February to take stock of these discussions.

Discussion of Extension of Article 50

The Prime Minister has been clear that she intends to deliver on the 2016 referendum result in taking the UK out of the EU. She has also spoken against the possibility of extending Article 50 and repeatedly stated that the UK will leave the EU on 29 March 2019.

Following her meeting with European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker on 7 February, the Prime Minister said:

I’m clear that I’m going to deliver Brexit, I’m going to deliver it on time, that’s what I’m going to do for the British public. I’ll be negotiating hard in the coming days to do just that.

During the debate on the Government motion on 29 January, Labour party leader Jeremy Corbyn said that it is “now inevitable” that the Government will have to extend Article 50 “in any scenario”, given that it is “not even close to being prepared” if it serious about keeping the possibility of “no deal” on the table. Mr Corbyn said

And even if the Prime Minister’s deal were to somehow achieve a majority in this House next month there is no chance that the necessary legislation, primary legislation and an extensive catalogue of secondary legislation – I believe 600 statutory instruments – could clear this place between now and the 29 March.

An extension to Article 50 would also be required under the Labour party’s favoured scenario of holding a general election, while a longer extension would be required if the option favoured by the Liberal Democrats and cross-party campaigners of another referendum (with an option to remain) was adopted.

Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt indicated on 31 January 2019 that an extension of Article 50 could be requested if the WA is approved shortly before 29 March, in order to provide for extra Parliamentary time to pass legislation to prepare for Brexit. If the WA is approved by Parliament, legislation providing for domestic implementation of the agreement will need to be approved by Parliament.

Section 13 of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018 provides that the UK cannot legally ratify the WA until the Commons approves a resolution approving both the negotiated withdrawal agreement and the framework for the future relationship, and Parliament passes the envisaged European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Bill to implement the WA in domestic law.

A report by the Institute for Government[11] published on 31 January 2019 said it was increasingly unlikely that the Prime Minister will be able to get the six outstanding Brexit bills through Parliament in time if there is a no deal Brexit on 29 March. These are the Trade Bill, Agriculture Bill, Fisheries Bill, Immigration Bill, Healthcare (International Agreements) Bill and the Financial Services Bill.

In addition, only 142 of the 600 statutory instruments required to prepare the statute book for exit day had made their way through Parliament as of 11 February 2019 (although 401 had been laid). These are being laid primarily using powers in the EU (Withdrawal) Act 2018.[12]

Standing in for the Labour leader at Prime Minister’s Questions on 6 February, Shadow Foreign Secretary Emily Thornberry said that the “sensible, cautious thing to do at this late stage is to seek a temporary extension of Article 50 so we have time to see if the negotiations succeed or, if they do not, to pursue a different plan.”

A request by the UK to extend the Article 50 negotiating period would require unanimous agreement by the EU27 leaders in the European Council. The European Commission and Member State representatives have indicated that their response to such a request would depend on the reasons the extension was being requested, and that they would not favour an extension to re-open negotiations on the WA.[13]

In an interview on the BBC Today programme on 13 February 2019, Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay referred to recent talks in Brussels and Strasbourg and said:

What came over was actually that it is not in anyone’s interests to have an extension without any clarity. It is actually very disruptive to the European parliament.

They have, obviously, elections for top jobs, they have a Commission that will be formed, the European Parliamentary elections at the end of May, so there is no desire on the European side to see what one described to me as an ‘extension in darkness’, where there is no clarity as to why we are extending.

Mr Barclay also spoke to BBC Breakfast news later in the morning, and stressed that an Article 50 extension would not be a unilateral UK decision:

It would require agreement from the Member States, all 27. One doesn’t know what conditions would be attached to that if it were sought.

Labour party proposals and Government response

In a letter to the Prime Minister on 6 February, Labour party leader Jeremy Corbyn said that the Government would need to enshrine five changes to the Political Declaration in law to secure Labour support for a Withdrawal Agreement. These would include a permanent and comprehensive UK-wide customs union; close alignment with the EU Single Market, underpinned by shared institutions and obligations; and dynamic alignment on rights and protections.

In his meeting with Theresa May on 7 February, European Council President Donald Tusk reportedly told the Prime Minister that Mr Corbyn’s plan offered a “promising way out” of the present Brexit impasse. However, the Prime Minister’s response to Mr Corbyn on 10 February stressed the importance of the UK having an independent trade policy (thus ruling out a customs union) and rejected the idea of automatically following changes of EU rules on workers’ rights or environmental protection. She said the Government would however be “prepared to commit to asking Parliament whether it wishes to follow suit whenever the EU changes its standards in these areas”.

Government motions and debates scheduled for 14 February and 27 February

During the debate on 29 January, the Prime Minister said that a revised deal would be brought back to the House for a second meaningful vote “as soon as we possibly can”. She said that if a revised deal was not brought back to the House by Wednesday 13 February, the Government would make a statement and, again, table an amendable motion for debate the next day. The Prime Minister made her statement on 12 February and the Government tabled a motion on the Prime Minister’s statement to be debated on 14 February.

In her 12 February statement, the Prime Minister referred to her talks the previous weeks with the President of the European Commission, and talks the previous day between the Brexit secretary and Mr Barnier where the ideas put forward by the Alternative Arrangements Working Group were discussed. She also referred to her forthcoming talks with other EU governments, and between the Government and Opposition, and the further talks planned with the President of the Commission. Mrs May said:

The talks are at a crucial stage, and we now all need to hold our nerve to get the changes that this House requires and to deliver Brexit on time.

Mrs May said that the Government will make a further statement on 26 February and table an amendable motion relating to the statement to be debated and voted on the next day, if a majority in the House for a withdrawal agreement and a political declaration had not been secured by then.

Yvette Cooper presented a revised version of her Bill on 12 February 2019 with cross-party support. She said that if the Prime Minister had not secured Commons support for an agreement by 26 February, then a cross-party amendment would be tabled that week in order to make time for the Bill. The Bill has a new trigger date of 13 March, by which time if a withdrawal agreement has not been approved the Commons will vote either to agree a no-deal Brexit or to require the Prime Minister to seek an extension of Article 50.

[1]    The “meaningful vote”, as required under Section 13 of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018,

[2]     For further details on what the backstop entails see House of Commons Library Insight, The backstop explained, 12 December 2018. See also House of Commons Library Briefing Paper CBP8453, The UK’s EU Withdrawal Agreement, 1 December 2018.

[3]    See Letter from the President of the European Council and President of the European Commission to the Prime Minister, 14 January 2019. See also the House of Commons Library Briefing Paper CBP8474, EU assurances to the UK on Brexit, 15 January 2019.

[4]     See BBC cross-party talks timeline, Brexit: Which MPs have had talks in Westminster? 17 January 2019.

[5]     Michel Barnier, speech to EP, 16 January 2019. Opening statements available at

[6]     Written Statement is at

[7]     For an outline of different options for the future relationship being proposed, see House of Commons Library Briefing Paper CBP8483, Brexit: Proposals for the future UK-EU relationship, 25 January 2019.

[8]     See House of Commons Library Insight, A ‘Plan B’ considered and two instructions given: Where next for Parliament and Brexit?,30 January 2019

[9]     See House of Commons Library Insight, The ‘Malthouse Compromise’: What is ‘Plan C’? , 19 January 2019, which looks at the initiative in more detail.

[10]    The Northern Ireland Affairs Select Committee concluded its report, The land border between Northern Ireland and Ireland, in March 2018 that there were no visible “technical solutions, anywhere in the world, beyond the aspirational, that would remove the need for physical infrastructure at the border”.

[11] Institute for Government, Brexit: two months to go, 31 January 2019.

[12]    See the Hansard Society’s Brexit Statutory Instruments Dashboard. See also Joel Blackwell and Ruth Fox, Legislating for Brexit: can the government get all the Statutory Instruments it needs through parliament by 29th March?, Prospect, 8 February 2019.

[13] For further discussion of these options and possible complications see House of Commons Library Briefing Paper CBP8496, Extending Article 50: Could Brexit be delayed?, 12 February 2019.

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