The UK government faced an uphill battle to persuade parliament to ratify the Withdrawal Agreement. Significant bodies of remainers and leavers strongly opposed the agreement. Both insisted that it should be renegotiated.
The prospective outcome of Brexit seemed markedly inferior to what voters expected when they voted to leave. Many Brexiteers saw the deal as a sell-out of Brexit, and some saw it as a national humiliation. Instead of realising the potential that Brexit was claimed to offer, the UK would end up with the worst of all worlds.
Remainers were emboldened and calls for a second referendum increased. Boris Johnson’s brother Joe Johnson had resigned from cabinet calling for a second referendum.
Remainers saw the agreement as ensuring that Brexit would happen (technically) on 29th of March 2019 so that a second referendum would become impossible. Equally, they pointed out that the Withdrawal Agreement’s terms were inferior to membership of the EU. Other remainers supported the agreement as a bridge to a customs union and close relationship.
In a challenge brought in the Scottish Courts and referred to the Court of Justice of the European Union, the highest court in the EU decided on 10 December 2018 that the UK government could unilaterally revoke Brexit. This led to increasing calls for revocation of Article 50 and the resetting of the timetable by remainers.
Both remainers and leavers urged renegotiation, but for fundamentally different reasons, the UK government and the EU emphasised that there was no alternative to the Withdrawal Agreement. It was this deal or no deal with the prospect of a crash-out Brexit on 29th March 2019 (may also apply to new exit date on 31 December 2020) .
The proposed House of Commons vote to approve the Withdrawal Agreement on 11 December 2018 was pulled at the last moment as it became clear that the numbers were not available to ratify the agreement. The Prime Minister agreed to discuss the concerns about the backstop with her fellow EU leaders who had ratified the agreement weeks earlier. She proposed that the backstop be limited to a one-year period which was rejected as fundamentally at variance with all that had been discussed and agreed to date. The backstop would be meaningless if it was temporary.
On 12 December 2018 sufficient letters were received trigger a leadership challenge to Theresa May’s leadership of the Conservative Party. She won the no-confidence vote ultimately. She declared once again that she would seek legally binding solutions to the backstop question.
At the EU Council a few days later May sought a legally binding commitment that the new trade agreement (supervening the NI backstop) would be completed within a defined time frame. The logical impossibility of the position was pointed out. The EU Council was willing to commit to using its best endeavours to work to a target date.
The EU acknowledged a firm determination to work speedily on a subsequent agreement that would establish by 31 December 2020, an alternative arrangement so that the backstop will not be triggered. It confirmed that the backstop would apply unless and until it was superseded by a subsequent agreement that ensured that a hard border was avoided. This added little to the Withdrawal Agreement. As the EU Council was unsurprisingly unwilling to reopen the legally binding text, it was inevitable that this could not achieve what Parliamentary party members had demanded.
Amidst a growing sense of crisis, the EU and UK stepped up its no-deal preparations to deal with the eventuality of a UK exit on 29th of March 2019 without a Withdrawal Agreement or transition arrangements. In Ireland. This included dealing with the real prospect of a full customs and regulatory border on the island of Ireland after that date.
The Labour Party opposed the Withdrawal Agreement as a bad deal for Britain. On 15 January 2019, the Withdrawal Agreement was rejected in the House of Commons by 432 votes to 202 with the DUP and over 100 members of the Conservative Party amongst those voting against it.
Many remainers opposed the Withdrawal Agreement in the hope of achieving revocation and a second referendum in the face of a no-deal Brexit. The DUP opposed the regulatory border in the Irish Sea and differentiated treatment of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Brexiteers opposed the agreement for reasons mentioned above.
Many Brexiteers began to argue than in in the words of Theresa May’s Lancaster House speech that no deal was better than a bad deal. Some argued a no-deal was the only pure form of Brexit it.
After months of internal wrangling, the Labour Party announced on February 24, 2019, that it would back a new referendum on whether the United Kingdom should leave the European Union in order to avoid a damaging “Tory Brexit”. The Labour Party demanded that the Prime Minister take no-deal off the table before entering further discussions with the European Union. The Prime Minister countered that this would fatally undermine her negotiation position.
Mrs May pledges to continue to seek changes to the backstop with the EU Council. The EU Council was not minded to change the agreement which it had recently ratified following almost two years of negotiations. Even if it was minded doing so, it was not clear what if any concession might satisfy the divergent groupings in parliament.
Under the so-called Brady amendment supported by the UK government, a majority of the House of Commons had confirmed in principle that they would support the Withdrawal Agreement, but only on the condition that alternative arrangements were to be provided to avoid a hard border. Once again to her European colleagues, it appeared to be a repudiation of the Withdrawal Agreement recently concluded with them.
The UK government continued to seek legally binding guarantees that the backstop would be temporary only. The Attorney General Geoffrey Cox travelled to Europe, and a commitment was given that talks on the future relationship would commence as soon as possible after Brexit, including negotiations on alternative arrangements to replace the backstop, provided that the Withdrawal Agreement was ratified.
Confirmation was given by the EU that the dispute settlement mechanisms in the Withdrawal Agreement could be invoked if an attempt was made to make the backstop permanent. The UK made a declaration that if the EU was to refuse to act in good faith in negotiating a replacement for the backstop in accordance with the Withdrawal Agreement, that it would invoke the dispute settlement mechanisms subject to upholding its general obligations under the Good Friday agreement. The EU took the view that the assurances and the unilateral declaration by the UK were simply confirming that which was clear from or implicit in the Withdrawal Agreement.
Following the further assurances, a second vote was taken on the Withdrawal Agreement which was rejected by 391 votes 242. Supported by Conservative rebels and conservatives who had quit the party, members voted almost immediately to rule out in a no-deal exit, which was scheduled for 29th of March 2019 and voted to delay Brexit.
Prime Minister Theresa May requested that Brexit be delayed until 30th June. Nine days before the scheduled exit date, the EU Council agreed that the exit date could be delayed until 22nd May, if the Withdrawal Agreement was approved or until 12th April, if not approved by that date, by which the UK might indicate its proposals to proceed.
An alliance of Conservative rebels, ex-Conservative rebels and opposition parties seized control of the agenda of the House of Commons with the acquiescence of speaker. A number of alternative proposals were put, with a view to ascertaining what if anything MPs might support. Each proposition was rejected. Neither remainders nor levers were prepared to compromise holding out respectively for a second referendum and Brexit without the backstop.
On March 27, 2019, Theresa May offered to resign if Parliament passed the Withdrawal Agreement on the third attempt. On March 29 the Withdrawal Agreement was rejected again, this time by 344 posts 286 with many of the key Brexiteer rebels including Boris Johnson and leading members of the ERG voting in favour. Further indicative votes were taken once again, with all options being ruled out. The proposal for a customs union was rejected by just three votes.
Prime Minister Theresa May had not reached out to the Labour Party opposition which continued to oppose her agreement notwithstanding that many believed that a significant number of Labour MPs might support it under the right circumstances. Prime Minister May entered talks with Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn and requested a further extension to 30 June 2019.
The proposed extension would necessitate the UK’s participation in the European Parliamentary elections, which were due the following month. On April 10, 2019, the EU Council agreed to extend the Brexit date to 31 October 2019 (may also apply to new exit date on 31 December 2020) or earlier if the Withdrawal Agreement was ratified before this date.
Nigel Farage, the former UK leader, formed the Brexit Party and put forward candidates for the EU parliamentary elections the following month. It rapidly received high ratings in opinion polls. At local elections in the first week of May, the Conservative Party suffered significant losses largely to the Liberal Democrats. The Brexit Party did not contest the local elections.
Through this time, the Prime Minister’s talks with Jeremy Corbyn continued. It appeared from leaks that continued membership of the customs union might be agreed. The talks were later suspended amid divisions on the issue.
On the eve of May 2019 European Union elections, Theresa May announced further proposals seeking to appeal to the various factions of her own party and the Labour Party. It promised conclusion of a trade deal negating the backstop by December 2020, alignment with EU rules on goods relevant to border checks and a proposal that there be a parliamentary vote on whether there should be a second referendum.
Commitments were made on workers’ rights to the effect that they would not be less than the EU level. It committed the UK to align itself with EU regulation to prevent any division and checks between Northern Ireland and GB if the backstop came into force.
Rather than brokering a coalition in favour of the Withdrawal Agreement, it met strong opposition within both the Conservative Party and Cabinet. Her support in cabinet ebbed away. The proposal for a vote on a second referendum was the last straw for her opponents who had been seeking to replace her as Prime Minister for at least most of the previous year.
In the European Parliamentary elections held on 23 May 2019, the Brexit Party took over 31% of the vote with UKIP taking a further 3%. The Liberal Democrats took 20.3% of the vote. The Labour Party took 11.3%, and the Conservative Party took 9.1% of the vote. Theresa May announced her resignation as Conservative Party leader the next day.