Deal or no deal – third time lucky?
The debate on EU withdrawal has laid divisions in both the Labour and Conservatives parties. Paul Anderson asks what’s next for Brexit?
A week is a long time in politics.
On Thursday, a dramatic third consecutive day of Brexit votes, MPs voted by a majority of 210 to seek an extension to Article 50. In legal terms – at least for the moment – this changes very little; it is still technically possible that we will leave the EU by the end of March. Politically, however, this date has been kicked into the long grass.
At some point next week, Prime Minister Theresa May will, for a third time, bring her deal before parliament for yet another meaningful vote. The results of this vote will determine the future course of Brexit. Should MPs ultimately endorse the PM’s deal – an unlikely but possible scenario – the PM has vowed to request a ‘short technical’ three-month extension to Article 50. In the event that MPs once again reject the deal, a longer-term extension is likely to be requested.
The ball, however, is firmly within the hands of the EU and its member states. An extension of Article 50 requires the unanimous support of all 27 countries. It seems likely that the EU will extend the Brexit deadline, but this will be a hesitant rather than enthusiastic move. EU leaders would like to avoid a no-deal scenario, but a prolonged period of uncertainty brought about by a deadline extension is just as unpopular.
So, this begs the question, what next for Brexit?
Approval of the deal? – This would be the most straightforward avenue for the government. If successful in the impending third vote on the deal, Theresa May would request the short term extension to Brexit and if granted the UK would leave the EU with a deal on 30 June 2019.
No deal? – As noted above, Parliament has rejected leaving the EU with no deal, but this remains the defaults outcome in the event that the EU member states do not agree to extend Article 50.
Renegotiation? – A renegotiation may be on the cards should a long-term extension to Article 50 be granted. Unlike the previous tweaks Mrs May has tried to secure, a significant renegotiation would take time and would necessitate some clear direction – perhaps from Parliament – over the future direction of Brexit. This would involve a series of indicative votes. On Thursday, by a margin of only two, MPs rejected an amendment to guarantee these indicative votes, but David Lidington – Mrs May’s second in command – has suggested this avenue would be explored were the government’s deal rejected again.
A second referendum? – On Thursday MPs voted against a cross-party amendment calling for a second referendum. This was defeated by a huge margin – 334 to 85, primarily a result of Labour’s directive to its MPs to abstain. At face value, the prospect of a people’s vote may be interpreted as dead in the water, but campaigners for a second vote remain optimistic.
General Election? – The PM does not have the power to call a snap general election, but a vote in parliament with the support of two-thirds of MPs – as took place in 2017 – would secure this option. After the PM’s deal was defeated in the second meaningful vote held on Tuesday 12th, Jeremy Corbyn immediately called for a general election. This is, unsurprisingly, not the Conservative Party’s preferred option, but the prospect of a general election in 2019 is looming ever closer on the horizon.
A second vote of no confidence? – As took place in January, the opposition could table a motion of no confidence in the government. Were such a motion to pass, the PM would have 14 days to try and win the vote, but if she fails to rally the support needed to continue, and no alternative government could be formed, parliament would be dissolved and a general election date announced.
Revocation of Article 50? – Late last year the European Court of Justice ruled that if it sought to do so, the UK government could unilaterally revoke Article 50 and stop Brexit. According to the Court, Article 50 would have to be revoked by 29 March 2019 at the latest, unless the EU’s 27 member states grant an extension. Unlike an extension, revoking Article 50 does not require the support of the EU, but support for this option among a majority of MPs is muted.
Over the last two years, the debate on EU withdrawal has laid bare divisions in both the Labour and Conservative parties. The series of consecutive votes this week have placed such divisions in the spotlight and not only illuminate a splintered cabinet, but a divided opposition, too.
The need for cross-party cooperation on securing an agreed approach to Brexit is the only way forward, but the prospect of this is somewhere between impossible and improbable; Corbyn and May cannot even get their own parties in order.
Paul Anderson is Lecturer in Politics and International Relations in the School of Psychology, Politics and Sociology.