After a bitter defeat in the Commons, Prime Minister Theresa May has three days to decide the next steps for a Brexit faltering in its tracks, and a confidence vote to fight on Wednesday.
After Theresa May suffered her second Brexit defeat in 24 hours on Wednesday Evening – this time led by her own MPs who forced the Government to provide revised plans within three days rather than 21 – there was little doubt that today’s vote on the Brexit deal would fail.
Despite attempting to provide assurances to her own party and the Democratic Unionists that the Irish Backstop would not come into play (the mechanism that ensures that there will be no hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland by subjecting goods that pass between the rest of the UK and Northern Ireland to checks), the issue remained too contentious, and was not deemed solved by MPs in the Commons, despite a delay of over a month since the original scheduled vote, on December 11th.
The government lost by 230 votes, with 202 MPs siding with them and 432 against (the biggest government defeat since the 1920s). But what happens now for a Prime Minister, and a Government, teetering on the cliff-edge?
The Commons will now have a chance, in just three days time, to vote on alternative policies – everything from a ‘managed no-deal’ to a further referendum, a ‘Norway option” or a revamped version of the current deal. But this will come after a vote of no confidence, tabled by Jeremy Corbyn, to be voted on tomorrow.
In fact, there are five possible main options for what could happen now – all of which (bar a No Deal scenario) would have to be approved by Parliament before the 29th March.
1. Vote of No Confidence or General Election
Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party has tabled a vote of no confidence, and with even her own MPs rebelling against her, and no majority for a no deal in Parliament – could this pass in the house, and force a General Election or simply for her to resign? The last that succeeded was against James Callaghan’s Labour Government in 1979, and won by a single vote. However, with the amount of Government defeats only rising, with tonight’s the biggest in a century, it isn’t an unlikely possibility that it could, especially as the DUP’s vital 10 MP’s support for the current Brexit deal has been withdrawn (although they are still likely to support the Prime Minister in a vote).
Rule changes in 2011 made it more difficult for the opposition to call an early general election or force a vote of no confidence – with the latter requiring two votes to pass, each 14 days apart. Even if the opposition don’t call for one, it is possible that her own party, or the Prime Minister herself could call one (although the consent of parliament is required for both). Regardless of who calls one, this situation would almost definitely require the extension of Article 50, by either the current or new parliament.
2. No Deal
If all else fails, the default position as set out by the European Withdrawal Act is a no-deal Brexit. Both UK and EU law dictates that this will happen if neither side can agree on a deal, and although the government would likely want to pass legislation to ‘manage’ a no-deal scenario, this isn’t essential, and would have to be passed through Parliament first, after another defeat on the 8th ensured this.
However, with the clear lack of a majority in the House for a No-Deal, as shown with the vote last Wednesday, it seems unlikely that the UK will leave without some sort of deal, or without at least the attempt of a General Election or change in Government first. A large majority of MPs from all sides will do whatever it takes to block a no-deal scenario, even going as far as to change the House’s rules, so the possibility of Parliament blocking a no-deal scenario outright isn’t out of the picture.
Although this situation also looks increasingly unlikely, a renegotiation is theoretically possible – however both sides have stated that this will not happen. May argues that the deal is the best deal possible, and although sought clarification, would not seek for renegotiation. The EU says that renegotiation is not possible, at least not within the current timeframe.
Article 50 would have to be renegotiated and extended, with the EU then drawing up a new deal, the Government then approving it, and subsequently, the consent of Parliament then being given. The difficulty of this cannot be fathomed, but nevertheless, it’s not impossible, and would likely lead to a softer Brexit scenario than many in parliament and the electorate would want.
4. Resignation or Revocation
Theresa May survived a challenge to her leadership in December, and therefore, under the Conservative Party’s rules she can’t face another for at least 12 months. But there is always the possibility that she could decide to resign anyway if she can’t get her deal through. This would trigger a Conservative leadership campaign, which could last up to a month, and result in a new Prime Minister.
Even more unlikely is the complete revocation of Article 50, and the cancellation of Brexit altogether. Polls suggest that there now an even clearer and widening majority for remaining in the EU and although unlikely, a Prime Minister may decide this is the only way to create stability in an ever-changing environment.
5. A Second Referendum
The final possible option is a second referendum – a “People’s Vote”. As with the option of renegotiation or an early election, this would also require an extension of Article 50 and the delay of Brexit – but it’s looking increasingly possible, with the idea gaining some traction in the House, although Corbyn seems unlikely to take the step many of his supporters want and publicly support a second referendum.
This would require new legislation to enable the referendum, and for the Electoral Commission to define the question – but it is likely to take upwards of 20 weeks to plan and enact – way beyond the end of March. And even then, a referendum (like the last in 2016) is only advisory. The Government has no obligation to follow the result of a referendum and if the result is close, may continue on the path of Brexit regardless – a fruitless exercise.
However, the options may not even be in the Government’s hands, after a cross-party group of senior MPs threatened that Theresa May “will lose ability to govern” if the scale of the defeat was big enough. Senior MPs are plotting to change the House’s rules, so motions proposed by backbenchers take precedence over government business, changing the ancient relationship between the government and its parliament. Such a move would be unprecedented, but in the current climate, anything is possible, including even a change to centuries old legislative practice.
Whatever happens, however – this is the most tumultuous time in British Politics for over 30 years. History is happening right in front of our eyes, and for political junkies it’s like Christmas has come around again. In three days, we will find out the Government’s preferred approach to solving this crisis, but the real result of today’s vote may not be seen for weeks, months, or even years.
Featured Image: Theresa May at the Northern Powerhouse, Number 10