Parliament sends a vital signal on the sort of Brexit it can back

Tonight’s votes in the House of Commons were of massive political significance.

Tuesday, 29th January 2019, 10:18 pm
Updated Thursday, 7th February 2019, 7:42 pm
News Letter editorial
News Letter editorial

The government won by mostly relatively comfortable margins, or at least by the standards of a hung parliament.

It failed to prevent an amendment rejecting a ‘no deal’ Brexit but that was a non binding vote. Most important of all, the Conservative Party united to support an amendment that sought legally binding change to the Irish border backstop.

This of course does not mean that there will be such change, or indeed that there will be any movement at all from the European Union. It does not even mean that further legislation to enact an amended Withdrawal Agreement would in fact pass both houses of Parliament even if the EU did so agree.

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The significance, however, lies in the fact that the government has not disintegrated as at times in recent months it has seemed it might, via a schism in the Conservative Party.

The broad bulk of Tory MPs, including firm supporters of Remain as well as hardcore Brexiteers, supported Graham Brady’s motion, as did the DUP’s 10 MPs.

The EU was swift in its dismissal of any change to the Withdrawal Agreement, but there have clearly been small cracks in recent weeks that betray a firm desire for a deal on the part of much of the Brussels establishment.

No longer can it be said that the UK does not have a position that it can endorse and pass — it now does.

Northern Ireland is in the remarkable situation that its land border is now the chief obstacle to the UK leaving the EU in an orderly fashion. That is a perilous situation for unionists to be in. At any moment, a majority at Westminster could cut us adrift. Theresa May’s foolish acceptance of the backstop in late 2017, despite depending on DUP votes, illustrated that.

Now though the backstop is in peril. There is a long way to go, and a short time to go that long way, but tonight was a vital signal from MPs as to what is and is not permissible in terms of compromises of sovereignty.