MPs have rejected the Prime Minister’s Brexit deal by 230 votes. Abi Kay explains what this means for farmers.
Following tonight’s (January 15) long-awaited crunch vote, farm groups have expressed their concern that MPs have refused to back the Prime Minister’s Brexit deal.
A group of rebel Conservative MPs led by Nick Boles, Nicky Morgan and Oliver Letwin have put forward a plan for the Liaison Committee, made up of all the chairs of House of Commons Select Committees, to propose a new Brexit plan if the Prime Minister’s deal has not been passed after three weeks.
But as things stand, the legal position is that the UK will leave the EU on March 29, 2019, without any deal if the Government’s agreement is not backed by Parliament.
In practice, this would mean falling back on to World Trade Organisation (WTO) rules, with beef and sheep meat exports facing tariffs of at least 40 per cent and all other agricultural exports forced to undergo a host of new checks, including sanitary controls.
Although research has shown trading on WTO terms would boost prices for most farmers, excluding those in the sheep sector, the Government is notoriously concerned about food price inflation.
As a result, Number 10 has asked Defra to look at dropping all tariffs in the event of a no-deal Brexit – a move which is universally expected to be bad for UK farming.
Vicki Hird, food and farming co-ordinator at Sustain, said: “Confusion reigns about what might happen after the meaningful vote.
“However, Sustain Alliance members have been absolutely clear – a no-deal situation is to be avoided at all costs.
“It could imperil our food supply – which will disproportionately affect those on low incomes – and disrupt valuable trade routes for our producers and farmers.
“Suggestions the UK might suspend or diminish food regulations to keep food supply flowing are also alarming.”
NFU Cymru president John Davies has echoed these concerns.
He said: “At the end of last year, NFU Cymru considered the Prime Minister’s deal, and although far from perfect, we gave it our qualified support on the basis it is preferable to the prospect of a chaotic no-deal Brexit for Welsh agriculture.
“Tonight’s events are deeply troubling in that they take us one step closer to the much-feared no-deal situation.
“For the time being, we continue to watch and wait very closely, however time is very short.”
The CLA also warned the defeat in Parliament has ‘thrown the industry into further uncertainty’ and called on the Government to ensure a deal is in place before March 29.
For FUW president Glyn Roberts, extending or revoking Article 50 altogether is a key priority.
He said: “I will tomorrow (January 16) be chairing another emergency meeting of our chairmen and vice presidents at which our next steps will be decided, but my initial reaction to this vote reflects what I told Theresa May when we met in July - that Article 50 needs to be withdrawn or extended in order to buy time and ensure we do not crash out of the EU almost by accident.
“This is exactly the sort of scenario we feared.”
Farmers Guardian is currently putting together a full assessment of what a no-deal Brexit would mean for agriculture, but in the meantime, you can find out what WTO rules would mean for your sector – including potential opportunities – HERE.
OPTION 1 – Bring back the deal
Despite the scale of the defeat, the most likely next step is that the Prime Minister will seek further concessions from Brussels, but bring the same basic deal back for MPs to vote on again.
By law, the Government should have had three weeks to bring forward its revised plans after any defeat, but MPs concerned about Ministers ‘running down the clock’ to Brexit day were helped by the Speaker to cut the amount of time allowed down to three days.
Even with this new three-day rule, if the deal passes on a second attempt, it is possible the Government could run out of time to get the Bill needed to give effect to the vote through Parliament before March 29 – increasing the need for Article 50 to be extended.
Other moves by the Government to win over Labour MPs, such as committing to follow EU environmental rules, are likely to continue.
OPTION 2 – Change future relationship options
The PM could choose to make pink her old red lines on issues such as freedom of movement.
This would give her the flexibility to offer a different kind of future relationship. She could also offer Parliament a more formal role in the second stage of negotiations.
It would be possible for her to do both these things while she continues to push for MPs to support her Withdrawal Agreement, as the future relationship is dealt with by a separate ‘political declaration’.
Any pivot to a different kind of future relationship would still require a Withdrawal Agreement which settles budgetary and citizens’ rights issues.
OPTION 3 – Give the public another say
One other option the PM could take is to give the public another say on Brexit, either through a General Election or a second referendum.
This is unlikely for two reasons: First, the Tories are not comfortably enough ahead in the polls for a GE to be attractive, and second, Conservative members are overwhelmingly supportive of Brexit and would regard a second referendum with suspicion.
OPTION 4 – Test the will of the House of Commons
When the Prime Minister brings her revised plans back to the House of Commons next Monday, it will be in the form of an ‘amendable motion’.
One Plaid Cymru amendment is for MPs to stage a series of votes on the possible Brexit options, with the least popular choices knocked out until only the most popular was left.
The outcomes on the ballot paper would be the PM’s revised deal, a ‘Canada-plus’ free trade deal, ‘Norway-plus’, no deal, a second referendum and remaining in the EU.
OPTION 5 – Hand control to other players
The Boles-Morgan proposal for the Liaison Committee to put forward a new Brexit process if the Prime Minister’s deal has not been passed after three weeks may have had cold water poured on it by the chair and vice chair of the committee, but other novel plans giving Parliament more control are likely to emerge in the coming weeks.