Brexit: Theresa May’s Gordian knot?

The Gordian Knot is a myth surrounding that great conqueror of early history, Alexander of Macedon who when faced with a rope so knotted that it could not be unwound by the most skilful of champions took out his sword and cut the knot into pieces: thus solving the problem and providing the first demonstration in lateral thinking.

Flash forward three thousand years, and UK Prime Minister Theresa May finds herself faced with her own Gordian knot in negotiating Britain’s exit from the European Union. In each turn of the knot, she finds herself further and further entangled within its shackles. Each knot has its own strand each with its own objectives and impact on the UK and indeed the EU at large.

Strand one: The divorce bill

£27bn, £40bn, £57bn. The price of Britain’s exit seems to increase week to week, certainly in the newspaper headlines anyway. Things are often spun in such a way as to make the EU’s demands overtly punitive, and yes to some degree they are in terms of actual cost. The problem is this: We signed up to these agreements which placed a cost on our membership and now we have to honour those agreements.

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What will the final cost of Brexit be and will the UK pay it?

The issue now is that this bill is being used in a game of brinkmanship by the EU. To get the trade deal we must first pay the piper, and the EU is calling the tune. The problem is, if we refuse to pay we can’t legally leave and we risk engendering the bad feeling of future trading partners. However if we pay an overtly large settlement in order to achieve the next step in the process, the Prime Minister loses all credibility in the British parliament and media.

Strand two: What is a soft border anyway?

Historically, the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland has always been a ‘soft’ border than a ‘hard’ one going back to the founding of the Irish free state in 1919.  However with Ireland being a member of the EU and the UK in the future not being a member, the question becomes what to do with Northern Ireland.

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Is this the future for the Northern Irish border?

If we leave the border as a soft one, then we open a backdoor into the UK which could be exploited by thousands of economic migrants both legally and illegally as they would be able to become citizens of Northern Ireland and vicariously the UK.

The problem is if we have a hard border, we risk endangering over 30 years of improved relations between Northern and Southern Ireland, going all the way back to the Good Friday agreement, which ended the Irish troubles. The EU knows this and have given the Irish a veto on any border negotiations between ourselves and the EU.

A border needs to be maintained, there needs to be a clear distinction between what is now EU territory and what is UK territory, with the channel it is easy, with Ireland it will be harder.

Strand three: Proving the EU to be right

The European Union was designed to be an organisation of equal rights where everyone would be happy and everyone’s concerns would be listened to. No one is supposed to want to leave political paradise. Now that we have thrown that dream out of the window in asking to leave, the EU is entering damage control.

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Should Mrs May ignore her fellow European leaders as they look to preserve the EU?

Part of that damage control is enforcing an exit that is punitive so as to discourage others from seeking the same exit that we are seeking. Another part is that an exit was never envisioned by the people writing the EU so this is new territory, both politically and sociologically and in any new territory there are going to be bumps in the road.

By pursuing a hard Brexit we achieve our aims but we engender an undercurrent of hostility over our exit from the EU. Other nations, emboldened by our exit may seek to renegotiate their deals and if these negotiations fail, then more and more nations will leave.

Strand Four: Party politics

No party can be seen to go against the will of the British people, especially where the EU referendum is concerned, however the Labour party has been largely indifferent in its Brexit stance, not deciding between a hard Brexit (which would appease the Brexiteers) and a so called soft Brexit (which would appease the remainers, who don’t want to leave the EU).

The more concessions Theresa May makes, the more she loses the support of her own party and now following the disastrous general election in May, Mrs May now has to balance the support of her own party with her new coalition partners: The Democratic Unionist Party. The DUP is a party which has a profoundly religious background of somewhat radical ideas.

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The power behind the throne? With ten hugely important seats in parliament, the DUP is in a position to exert enormous influence on the British political system

Their brand of unionism and their proximity to the Irish question makes them a key player in the EU negotiations add to that their ability to collapse the May government by withdrawing their support and the difficulty that the Conservative government under Theresa May faces is self-evident.

Strand Five: Home problems

When faced with a choice, 52% of voters in this country voted to leave the EU. Regardless of the politics involved we said we wanted to leave and now the government is charged with making that happen.

But politics in this country didn’t suddenly stop, the problems in this country didn’t suddenly cease functioning and they will continue to do so even when we leave the EU. The problem is, finding the right time to address these long standing problems when we have more immediate concerns.

We have two years to leave the EU, as mandated by our treaty with them and we have to make it work within that time. The problem is that parts of the negotiation there affect problems here.

If we pull out of the single market without an effective substitute then our economy suffers, if we lose the European court of human rights without an effective judiciary authority to replace it then the legal system suffers and so on and so forth. So we can’t ignore the negotiations and we can’t address our own long standing problems without addressing short term concerns.

Cutting the knot

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Is there a lateral solution to the Brexit problem?

Alexander demonstrated lateral thinking in cutting the knot with his sword. Theresa May can do the same, but she needs to display the same confidence in her thinking to do so.

Brexit is going to happen and no second referendum is going to change that, however what may be needed is the ability to act definitively: to pay the bill, to sort out the border, to change the language and bring the EU back to positivity in these negotiations, to build a political consensus and to support our own country.

Can she do so? Potentially yes. Will she do so and remain in charge? No. Decisiveness and democracy don’t always get along and I think the first casualty of Brexit will be Mrs May.

View from the Green Seats- Brexit Bill debate begins in House of Lords

Prime Minister Theresa May sits behind the Speaker (back row) as Baroness Smith of Basildon speaks in the House of Lords, London, during a debate on the Brexit Bill.

Peers from all political parties have begun their first day of debating the Government’s Brexit Bill in the House of Lords.

Conservative Prime Minister Theresa May was even in attendance, sitting on the benches just in front of the Queens chair. She had previously urged the Lords not to frustrate the political process of Brexit and to obey the will of the people.

These sentiments were echoed by Conservative peer Lady Evans who said that: “This bill is not about revisiting the debate.”before adding “Noble Lords respect the primacy of the elected House and the decision of the British people on 23 June last year.”

Opposition Labour peer Baroness Smith of Basildon said that the government would not be given a ‘blank cheque’ for Brexit and promised to make ministers consider “reasonable changes.” to the proposed bill.

Baroness Smith said that this was not “delaying the process” but part of the process of Brexit.

Lord Newby, leader of the Liberal Democrats in the Lords, said the bill could be changed and sent back to the House of Commons for reconsideration, arguing there was a “world of difference between blocking… and seeking to amend it”.

He said that the government’s approach was “little short of disastrous” and “to sit on our hands in these circumstances is unthinkable and unconscionable.”

There will be two days of debating the bill in the House of Lords this week, before it moves to committee stage and a potential vote on the final makeup of the legislation.

Although the Lords have said that they will not allow the bill to pass unopposed and unchanged in the same way that it did in the commons, they would be very reluctant to risk open warfare with the commons over the Brexit bill so the bill should pass reasonably quickly.

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Breaking Whispers: Article 50 Bill passed for final commons reading

Within the last hour MP’s have voted overwhelmingly in favour of passing the governments European Union (notification of withdrawal) bill to the final stage of debate in the House of Commons.

The final stage, comprising a third reading of the bill was approved by a commons vote of 494 votes for to 122 votes against- a majority of  372.

What happens at a third reading?

  • Debate on the Bill is usually short, and limited to what is actually in the Bill, rather than, as at second reading, what might have been included.
  • Amendments (proposals for change) cannot be made to a Bill at third reading in the Commons.
  • At the end of the debate, the House decides (votes on) whether to approve the third reading of the Bill.

After that if the bill is approved, it passes to the House of Lords for its first reading and debate. Once the bill passes in the House of Lords it moves forward for Royal Assent and will eventually become law.

Why is this significant?

The passage of the bill into the third stage of reading stops opposition parties from tabling amendments which could derail the governments Brexit agenda.

Many amendments to the bill have been tabled as part of the second reading and have been successfully defeated in subsequent parliamentary votes.

Its a crucial victory in the governments timetable of a 31st March triggering of Article 50 and the commencement of the UK leaving the EU.

Commons Reaction

david-davis-boris-johnson-e1476175519793David Davis, Secretary of State for Brexit released the following statement after the vote:

“We’ve seen a historic vote tonight – a big majority for getting on with negotiating our exit from the EU and a strong, new partnership with its member states.

It has been a serious debate, a healthy debate, with contributions from MP’s representing all parts of the UK, and I respect the strong views on all sides.

The decision on EU membership has been made by the people we serve. It is now time for everyone, whichever way they voted in the Referendum, to unite to make a success of the important task at hand for our country.”

Former UKIP leader Nigel Farage immediately took to Twitter to express his delight at the positive vote:

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Gisela Stuart, the Labour MP who chaired the Vote Leave campaign said: “This bill has passed with significant majorities unamended which is a clear signal to the House of Lords that they should do the same.”

The vote was not without some controversy however, as Shadow Business Secretary Clive Lewis resigned his post in order to defy the Labour parties three line whip and vote against passing the bill.

Newly elected Labour MPs

Mr Lewis, a key ally of Jeremy Corbyn issued a statement via the party saying: “When I became the MP for Norwich South, I promised my constituents I would be ‘Norwich’s voice in Westminster, not Westminster’s voice in Norwich’. I therefore cannot, in all good conscience, vote for something I believe will ultimately harm the city I have the honour to represent, love and call home.”

4c71bc1669a2e0dbf91fe4f69ebeef74Mr Corbyn said he understood the difficult position of some of his MP’s but said they had been ordered to back the Article 50 because the party would not “block Brexit”.

Shadow home secretary Diane Abbott, who was widely derided after she missed last week’s initial vote on the bill due to a migraine, backed it this time, saying: “I’m a loyal member of the shadow cabinet and I’m loyal to Jeremy Corbyn.”

Breaking Whispers-Government gives MP’s vote on final Brexit bill before it is signed

The government have today agreed to give MP’s a vote on any final Brexit deal before it is signed.

Speaking in Parliament earlier today, Brexit Minister David Jones confirmed that the government’s vote will cover withdrawal from the EU, and the UK’s future relationship with the EU.

He confirmed that both Houses of Parliament will get a vote on the final deal before the deal is concluded and that parliament will vote on the deal before the European parliament does.

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David Jones MP

Mr Jones said: “First of all we intend that the vote will cover not only the withdrawal arrangements but also the future relationship with the European Union. Furthermore, I can confirm that the government will bring forward a motion on the final agreement to be approved by both Houses of Parliament before it is concluded, and we expect and intend that this happen before the European parliament debates and votes on the final agreement.”

Following todays concession by the government members of Parliament have this evening voted against including a labour proposed amendment to the Brexit bill that would allow a parliamentary vote on any potential Brexit deal negotiated by the Government.

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Chris Leslie MP

The vote follows a motion by the Labour MP Chris Leslie in the House of Commons earlier today.

The amendment, known as NC110 comprised the following:

“Future relationship with the European Union

(1) Following the exercise of the power in section 1, any new Treaty or relationship with the European Union must not be concluded unless the proposed terms have been subject to approval by resolution of each House of Parliament.

(2) In the case of any new Treaty or relationship with the European Union, the proposed terms must be approved by resolution of each House of Parliament before they are agreed with the European Commission, with a view to their approval by the European Parliament or the European Council.”

A parliamentary vote on adopting the motion into the bill was narrowly defeated with 326 votes against to 293 for adopting the motion, a majority of 33.

Several prominent Conservative MP’s who had voted remain voted with Labour in favour of the amendment, including Kenneth Clarke, Anna Soubry and Heidi Allen.

A secondary motion demanding a Brexit reset button in the case of an unfavourable deal which was proposed by the SNP was also defeated but by a much larger majority of 288.

The government faces another vote tomorrow on the rights of EU nationals living in the UK, but tonight’s vote was seen as an opportunity for the opposition to derail the governments Brexit plans.

However since the vote was defeated Theresa May is on course for achieving her aim of getting the article 50 bill through the Commons without it being amended.

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Breaking Whispers-MP’s back Governments Article 50 bill

MP’s have voted overwhelmingly to back the governments European Union (Notification of withdrawal) bill in a parliamentary vote today.

The final count was 498 votes in favour with 114 votes against conferring a majority of 384.

The bill will now pass to the next stage in the political process, clearing the way for Prime Minister Theresa May to publish a government white paper on Brexit tomorrow.

Tonight’s vote followed weeks of speculation that Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn would impose a three line whip on Labour MP’s, urging them to vote in support of the government.


What is a three line whip?

In the UK a three-line whip is an instruction given to Members of Parliament by the leaders of their party telling them they must vote in the way that the party wants them to on a particular subject. Or more roughly translated, vote as we all vote or you’re out.


Forty-Seven member of the Labour party defied their leaders wishes and voted against the government, along with members of the Scottish National Party and the Liberal Democrats.

Labour Shadow Cabinet members Rachael Maskell who served as Shadow Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Secretary and Dawn Butler who served as Shadow Equalities Minister resigned their front bench posts in order to vote against the government.

Prominent europhile and former Conservative chancellor Kenneth Clarke voted against the government after yesterday likening the Prime Ministers Brexit plans to Alice In Wonderland: “Apparently you follow the rabbit down the hole and emerge in a wonderland where suddenly countries throughout the world are queuing up to give us trading advantages and access to their markets that previously we’ve never been able to achieve.”

Today’s vote concludes two days of parliamentary debate on the Brexit bill.

The bill now faces further scrutiny in the Commons and the House of Lords before it can become law.

The prime minister has set a deadline of 31 March for invoking Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, getting official talks with the EU started and this is the first of many steps to come in achieving this goal.

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