It’s not a surprise to anyone that Theresa May has crashed to defeat on her Brexit deal. Ever since the Chequers meeting of the Cabinet, it’s been clear that there was no parliamentary majority for what was planned. When the Northern Ireland Protocol – the much talked about ‘Backstop’ was added in it was only ever a matter of how crushing the defeat would be.
So, having rejected not only the deal but also all the amendments selected by the Speaker for MPs’ consideration, where do MPs go from here, and what’s the most likely outcome to the Brexit deadlock inside parliament.
Despite all the talk about the amendment tabled by Tory MP Dominic Grieve that calls on the government to bring forward a new plan within three days. What that doesn’t contain however, is a compulsion for a debate to take place, so it would be perfectly possible for the government to table a motion and allow it to languish on the House of Commons Order Paper for weeks, running down the clock before coming back with either a new plan, or bringing back the Withdrawal Agreement.
We leave with No Deal. Britain is leaving the EU on 29th March 2019. This isn’t just an oft-mentioned slogan from the embattled Brexiteers but a fact of statute, set out in the European Union (Withdrawal) Act. MPs have already passed motions claiming to be against No Deal, and it’s clear that there is no majority for that path in the Commons, but what isn’t clear is how MPs can avoid it. Overturning the withdrawal date would require a new statute, but the government controls the timetable in parliament, so would have to introduce any new legislation to that end. Whether Theresa May would be willing to do that, given the huge backlash she would face from her own party, is uncertain.
Theresa May resigns. Although given that she has continued despite the resignations, the disastrous General Election campaign and more than 100 of her own MPs voting against her, this seems unlikely. The cabinet could take matters into their own hands. If a steady stream of Remainers object privately or resign, at the prospect of No Deal, it would be hard to see May staying in post. On the other hand, if leave backer Cabinet members start resigning if May indicates she may move away from the current timescale, that could also force her out.
General Election. This is the preferred option of Labour and a few Tory MPs have said they would be willing to bring the government down to avert a No Deal exit. However, with many Tory Brexiteers and the DUP committed to keeping May in power, it seems unlikely. Simply passing a motion of no confidence doesn’t lead automatically to an election. The Fixed Term Parliaments Act means there would be 14 days for a new government to form and hold another vote, something that can be repeated many times. There simply isn’t time for this to happen and for a General Election before 29th March.
Second referendum. It seems unlikely for now, but given the Labour Party Conference motion leaves this on the table, there is a chance that this will be official Labour policy within the next three weeks. There might be enough Tory MPs to join with the Lib Dems and the SNP to bring the numbers into a majority, but with the DUP and a large number of Labour MPs opposed that seems unlikely.
Article 50 revoked. A recent court case brought by Scottish parliamentarians has confirmed that the UK can unilaterally revoke Article 50 and stay in the EU on the terms that we currently have. The court did say that the constitutional arrangements of the UK would have to be fulfilled, which essentially means a vote in parliament. Unless the Labour Party have a big change of heart this won’t happen. Even if a majority of MPs could pass a motion in favour of revocation, it wouldn’t be legally binding on the government to act.
Article 50 extended or suspended. Slightly trickier than a simple revocation because it needs the support of the 27 EU Member States. While there has been some discussion of this in Brussels, no formal talks have taken place, and it’s unlikely that there would be enough support in the House of Commons to do this, and then there is the consideration of the EU asking for more from the UK in exchange for the extension.
Theresa May goes to Brussels and renegotiate. This seemed to be the most likely outcome, until the exchange of letters with Juncker and Tusk earlier this week. Their statement that there will be no further negotiation on the legally binding Withdrawal Agreement makes any significant negotiations unlikely. However, the Commission has revealed that Jean Claude Juncker won’t be in Strasbourg on Wednesday, as he is staying in Brussels to deal with Brexit. The issue with this approach for the Prime Minister is it will only encourage some in her party to continue to oppose the deal in the hope of more and more concessions from the EU.
Parliament takes control of the process. This is something that is discussed often but hasn’t been fully explained. There is a chance for so-called ‘indicative votes’ where MPs would be asked to express an opinion on a range of options in order to decide what would be acceptable. Without government support, these motions wouldn’t be legally binding and could all be ignored without any consequence, except some political backlash at Westminster.
So the outcome depends on two factors, neither of which can be fully known at this stage. Firstly, what will the government do? Will they sit back and coast towards No Deal, will they frantically renegotiate? Will May throw her hands up and let parliament decide and take the wrath of the leavers, or will she even resign? The second factor is public opinion. Will polls in the coming days show people are backing the deal, a second referendum or content to sit back and wait for 29th March. Whatever the outcome, it’s fair to say the coming days and weeks will be among the most momentous in our lifetimes.