It’s three years since the Brexit referendum, and we are still in the EU. This has been another tumultuous year in Brexit. Some of the highlights have included a change in prime minister, five meaningful votes (sort of), an election, and we were even treated to a constitutional crisis in September, when Boris Johnson prorogued Parliament to prevent MPs from blocking a no-deal Brexit, only for this to be ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court.
MPs have spent most of the year disagreeing with each other over what type of Brexit they want. The ERG wanted a hard Brexit, some Tory and Labour MPs wanted a soft Brexit, the Lib Dems didn’t want Brexit at all, and Labour’s leadership could never really decide what they wanted. So how exactly did we get to where we are now – with a Withdrawal Agreement so similar to Theresa May’s that MPs have actually voted for – in the face of so much disagreement, I hear you ask. Well buckle up, I’m here to tell you.
In last year’s Brexit review, Backbench Editor-in-Chief Daniel Clark characterised 2018 as “the year of the Brexit secretaries”. So to carry on a trend, I will characterise 2019 as the year of the meaningful votes. The definition of meaningful here is, of course, questionable because four out of five of the votes were unsuccessful and were not of much meaning to the government or to Brussels at all. The only thing these votes signified to anyone was that nobody in the entire British parliament had a workable solution to the Brexit deadlock. But that all changed in December.
The first meaningful vote came in January after much stalling by May. She had been trying to get MPs from across the political divide on her side. Needless to say, this fell catastrophically on its face. Not only did opposition MPs vote against May’s deal. Meaningful vote one also took place less than a month after the ERG’s attempted coup. She couldn’t even get her own party on her side. The government lost the first meaningful vote by 432 votes to 202. This was the biggest defeat for a government motion since 1918.
After this, foreseeing the nightmare that would be three more failed meaningful votes, Jeremy Corbyn tabled a motion of no confidence in the government. But of course it was naive to expect the same Tories who had tried to oust May from her position just a month before to cast a vote of no confidence in their party and topple the government. So we remained in Brexit deadlock nightmare for the foreseeable future.
Then came the Brady amendment. Remember that? The amendment which called on the government to renegotiate the Irish backstop, that little thing which may or may not determine peace on the Irish border. MPs voted to back this. And then it only took 11 months, a change in prime minister, and a general election for this to actually happen.
We now move on to February, which saw perhaps the biggest non-event of the year when seven Labour MPs broke from their party to form Change UK. They were later joined by four other MPs from Labour and the Conservatives. Change UK lasted a grand total of 10 months. They announced earlier this month they were dissolving themselves as a party after gaining no seats in the European elections or the general election, which is unsurprising considering how incredibly unexciting they were.
Meaningful vote number two rolled around in March. This one was only marginally less humiliating for Theresa May. 39 Tory MPs who had rejected her deal in January switched sides to vote for her deal out of fears that Brexit could be delayed or reversed if Parliament could not reach an agreement. But May had still failed to win over the DUP and many members of her own party, with 75 Tory MPs rebelling to vote against her deal. By this point, MPs seemed to be enjoying arguing over Brexit and the spectacle of the prime minister’s crumbling authority so much that they voted not only to block no deal but also for the very first Brexit extension.
Because MPs love disagreeing with each other, it was decided that a series of indicative votes would be held. I’m sure it will come as no surprise to you that none of these votes passed and, in true Brexit deadlock fashion, these would indicate to the government not what MPs wanted them to do, but what they did not want them to do, which, unsurprisingly, was not very helpful to anybody.
The next thing to ruffle the government’s feathers was the Malthouse Compromise. This vanished into insignificance about as quickly as the Brady amendment did, but at least somebody was trying to solve Brexit. The compromise involved renegotiating the Irish backstop and a change to the transition period timeline, as well as a plan for a ‘managed no deal’. But of course, nobody was ready to get Brexit done quite yet, so we soldiered on.
Meaningful vote three was where things really started to get ridiculous. You would think that after two defeats, Theresa May would have taken the hint that nobody likes her deal, and binned the whole thing. But it seems taking hints isn’t May’s forte, so she brought her deal, and her last tiny bit of authority back to parliament for one last hurrah. And wait for it… MPs voted against her deal. So yet another extension was agreed, this time to October 31st, but not before parliament carried out yet another series of indicative votes which didn’t lead to anything other than the dramatic resignation of Nick Boles from the Tory party where he claimed “my party refuses to compromise”.
As if Theresa May hadn’t been finished off already, the European elections arrived to deliver her one last humiliating defeat. The Conservative Party won just three seats, with the Brexit Party sweeping up many former Conservative seats, and the Lib Dems and the Greens also making gains. Theresa May resigned as party leader the following day in an emotional statement outside 10 Downing Street, paving the way for the Conservative leadership election that the ERG had tried to trigger at the end of last year.
It is hard to believe that Theresa May was actually the prime minister this year. At the time, her premiership seemed so exceptionally chaotic that it would be impossible to forget. But her successor has upstaged her in every way possible, despite sharing the same fundamental goal with her, to “get Brexit done”.
It’s difficult to put into words just how crazy Johnson’s premiership has been. His first few weeks in office saw the Tories lose their working majority as Phillip Lee resigned and 21 Tory MPs were suspended from the party for defying the party whip, and voting for the Benn Act which would block a no-deal Brexit scenario. Amber Rudd also resigned the whip a couple of days later in protest against Johnson’s decision.
And if sacking 21 MPs from your own party wasn’t an insane enough thing for a prime minister to do, Boris Johnson then went ahead and prorogued parliament to avoid scrutiny over his Brexit plan. The Supreme Court later declared that this was unconstitutional and parliament was recalled so it could continue to be a thorn in the prime minister’s side.
This brings us to October. The perfect time for Boris Johnson to bring his newly negotiated deal back to parliament to be debated, on a Saturday. Of course, MPs hadn’t made life easy for May, so they weren’t about to do so for Johnson. The Letwin amendment was attached onto the deal, forcing Boris Johnson to request a further extension to Brexit. It seemed that Brexit deadlock wasn’t just a Theresa May problem. So now the only way forward was to have a general election.
Fast forward two months and it appears that Johnson has been rewarded by the British electorate for causing a constitutional crisis and purging the Tory party of non-hard Brexiteers with an 80 seat majority and a fresh mandate for Brexit. So MPs ended the year in the same way as they began it: by voting on the Withdrawal Agreement.
Johnson’s newly negotiated deal, which is different to May’s only in that the backstop has been replaced by a four year alignment between Northern Ireland and the EU, sailed easily through parliament with a majority of 124 votes. Almost without anybody noticing.
So that’s it, the Brexit nightmare is over. Well, not really. Right now, we are still at the stage of the nightmare before you fall into total darkness and wake up sweating. There is still worse to come.
As The Independent pointed out, “Johnson still has to grapple with negotiations for a sweeping trade deal with Europe (which the EU says in unrealistic)… and implement a system that puts a customs border in the Irish Sea but doesn’t interrupt trade, and more… all before his Brexit cliff-edge on 31 December 2020”.
So, whilst the Brexit Party and the People’s Vote campaign may have ceased to exist and pro and anti-Brexit protesters may have cleared out of SW1, we still have so much more to disagree about and we’ve all still got to endure the Brexit nightmare for another year.
Martha McHardy is an Editor at Backbench