It’s official, the deal has been defeated.
A no-confidence vote in the government has been tabled by Labour for the 16th January and pressure will increase on Theresa May to resign (although May is nothing if not a survivor).
Any confidence vote is highly unlikely to be successful for Labour – even with May’s authority so severely diminished – it will therefore likely fall on the current government to seek a new Brexit withdrawal agreement.
So, now that May’s deal is dead, what’s next for the government?
Dominic Grieve’s recent amendment states that the government has three days to make a statement before parliament as to their intentions following the defeat of the withdrawal agreement. It is likely May will use the defeat of the deal to attempt a renegotiation of the deal, particularly in regards to the backstop – in an attempt to win support from the ERG and DUP.
Any renegotiation concessions on the part of the EU, however, are likely to be limited, and even without the backstop, the ERG are still likely to oppose any deal that is similar to that already rejected by parliament.
A second referendum is also unlikely to gain majority support in the current parliament, due to reluctance from the Labour frontbench and Conservative remainers. Not to mention the outright opposition from leave supporting MPs across the house.
In order to break the parliamentary deadlock then, the government/parliament have two realistic options – both of which will likely require an extension of Article 50 to be achieved in time.
- Seek EEA membership, providing single market access and a customs union, through a coalition of Labour MPs and remainer Tories.
- Call a general election.
A political declaration seeking EEA membership is the only realistic Brexit model that has any hope of passing the current parliament. Numerous Conservative MPs support this proposal, notably Nick Boles, Nicky Morgan and reportedly even Michael Gove (if rumours are to be believed).
A Brexit deal focused around EEA membership also has the potential of meeting the Labour frontbench’s requirements set out by Starmer and Corbyn as a condition for Labour support. The vast majority of Labour MPs would likely rally around this proposal, particularly once it has become clear there is not adequate support for a second referendum in parliament.
EEA membership also will not require a general election, a proposition which is highly toxic to Conservative MPs that would have to vote no confidence in their own government and put their own seats at risk in the process.
However, this will remain a difficult course to pursue as it is highly unlikely that the government would be willing to endorse the EEA model. If they did, they would open themselves up to ERG support for a no-confidence vote that could collapse the government. After all, if the ERG will not accept the deal as it stands then it is unthinkable that they would let a far softer Brexit through parliament. It may well then fall to cross-party groupings in parliament to direct the negotiations, rather than the government, to achieve a Brexit deal.
The other alternative is to call a general election. This is Labour’s preferred strategy as the party is confident about their chances of forming at least a minority government in the face of the clear Conservative divisions over their Brexit policy.
A general election has the potential to legitimise numerous Brexit policies depending on the manifesto commitments of either party. The Conservative manifesto would presumably offer something similar to May’s rejected deal, increasing pressure on MPs to support it in the case of a Conservative victory.
The Labour manifesto would involve a controversial struggle between advocates of a second referendum against advocates of something similar to EEA membership. Considering the limited timeframe for a general election (which detracts from membership input over policy in the name of quick decision-making) and the scepticism of the Labour frontbench about a ‘People’s Vote’, EEA membership is the likely commitment – but is not inevitable.
A general election will be incredibly difficult to achieve as it involves Conservative MPs or the DUP voting to collapse their own administration. However, if the clock continues to tick towards a no-deal Brexit then it will become increasingly likely that some MPs would prefer risking their seats than crashing out of the EU.
If neither of these options can be achieved, then a no-deal Brexit will occur by default. This is the preference of many hard-Brexiteers who wish to run down the clock to an automatic no-deal Brexit. This will not become government policy, as numerous Conservative MPs have expressed their desire to resign from the party rather than endorse this policy.
Instead, hard Brexiteers will hope to exacerbate parliamentary gridlock so no consensus can emerge over a softer form of Brexit. Once the UK has crashed out of the EU without a negotiated deal, then negotiations for a future (distant) relationship with the block can begin as well as trade deals with large non-European economies.
This remains the least likely scenario, as although parliament has clearly struggled to find a majority for any form of Brexit (or opposition to Brexit), there is a clear majority against a no-deal scenario. This majority against no deal is likely to create increasing pressure for MPs to unite around a model that does minimal economic damage and can achieve a realistic majority in parliament.
There is no simple solution to the parliamentary deadlock over Brexit. But with time running out to avoid the Brexit cliff-edge, MPs from across the house will have to make difficult decisions and work together if a disastrous no-deal outcome is to be avoided.