LONDON – As the dust settles on the most chaotic week of British politics in recent memory, one question has become increasingly important. What happens if parliament votes down Theresa May’s Brexit deal?
Early in December, the prime minister will put her deal to a “meaningful vote,” in parliament. As things stand, it’s looking increasingly likely that MPs will reject it.
All opposition parties have vowed to oppose the deal, with only a small handful of rebel Labour MPs set to support the government.
Meanwhile, the Democratic Unionist Party, which props up May’s minority government, say they intend to oppose the deal because of the “backstop” mechanism agreed to by May would mean additional checks on goods passing between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
A significant number of Conservative MPs also intend to oppose the deal. Around 20 have already called for a vote of no confidence in May because of the deal with around a dozen more also suggesting they are likely to oppose the deal, both on the Leave and Remain wings of the party.
Anything but a defeat for the prime minister therefore appears unlikely. So what will happen if May does lose that vote? Here’s how it could all play out.
1. A no-deal Brexit
The first option is to leave the EU without a deal in March next year. There are two distinct types of no-deal exit. A relatively managed no-deal in which both sides acknowledge their inability to sign off a deal, and try to minimise chaos for businesses and people by reaching ad-hoc side agreements in important areas like border controls and cross-border finance contracts.
The alternative is an acrimonious and very hard exit with the UK paying no money and the EU rejecting side-deals. However, such an outcome is unlikely according to Charles Grant at the Centre for European Reform, who believes “those responsible for the chaos would soon become unpopular with their voters; also, the financial markets’ reaction would be more extreme, with a sharp weakening in the value of the pound.”
Neither the EU or the UK want to leave without a deal. Even hard Brexiteers like Liam Fox appear to have awoken to the dangers of such an outcome, with the International Trade Secretary saying on Friday that “a deal is better than no deal.”
However, if May is unable to get a deal through then a no-deal Brexit becomes the default position. However unlikely it may seem, the possibility cannot be ruled out.
2. A general election
If May is unable to get a deal through parliament then one option open to her is a general election. This is the option being pursued by the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn who believes he can put enough pressure on May to force her to go back to the country if she is unable to get support for her deal from MPs. It would certainly not be impossible to force an election, but under the Fixed Term Parliaments Act it would require at least 7 Conservative MPs to join the opposition in backing one for a new election to be held.
After the calamitous experience of last year’s general election where May threw away her majority, and with the parties close in the polls, most Conservative MPs are horrified by the prospect of an election for one simple reason: They could lose. The prospect of a radical socialist prime minister would likely be enough to frighten pretty much all Tory MPs away from backing an election.
Tory MP and former minister Guto Bebb, who backs a “People’s Vote,” told Business Insider that he would expect the Conservatives to lose “very badly” if they sought a general election after the deal failed in parliament.
“If the prime minister’s deal fails in parliament, and she decides to call a general election to get a mandate, my expectation is that the Conservative party would lose very badly,” he said.
“The proposition would be: ‘So far we’ve failed, can we have a vote of confidence please?'”
“I just can’t see that being a rational way forward for the government,” he added.
3. Send the prime minister back to Brussels
Part of the justification made by Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn for another election would be to allow him to take over the reins of government in order to renegotiate a deal with the EU. The current line from Brussels is that the deal cannot be re-negotiated. However, if push came to shove, there would probably be room for at least some EU flexibility in order to avoid a damaging no-deal Brexit. The pressure for more flexibility would arguably be even greater if there was a new prime minister and party in Downing Street. However, any renegotiation would require time and the possible extension of the Article 50 process. While the EU has not ruled out an extension they would likely be incredibly reluctant to do so under any but the most extreme scenarios.
4. A People’s Vote
There is growing cross-party support in Westminster for a so-called People’s Vote – or a second referendum – especially among Liberal Democrat and Labour MPs, but also some prominent Conservative MPs including Dominic Grieve and Jo Johnson.
There are several factors working against supporters of a People’s Vote, however. Critics say it would undermine trust in democracy and potentially cause civil unrest. They also point out that there is a very good chance the Remain campaign would simply lose again, which would defeat the object of the exercise from many of their perspectives.
Downing Street, however, is vehemently opposed to another referendum, and Theresa May has said it would be “a gross betrayal of our democracy.” A Conservative government would almost certainly never legislate for such an outcome. The party would be eviscerated at the polls and its leader ousted immediately.
But there’s a reasonable chance that Labour could be in power before March next year. By far the most likely route to a second referendum would be through a Labour government which has explicitly kept the option of supporting it on the table, despite Jeremy Corbyn’s personal reluctance to support one.
5. Voting for May’s deal a second time
Another scenario which could see disaster averted is a second vote on the deal. Theresa May – or whoever succeeds her after being forced out – could put the current deal, or a marginally renegotiated one, before parliament a second time. Faced with the prospect of a terrifying no-deal or another referendum, or general election, it remains possible that sceptical MPs could be cajoled into supporting it. However, such a turnaround would be dependent on the first vote being relatively close. If May loses the vote on her deal by a large margin, as it currently seems feasible that she will, then it will be much harder to persuade MPs who rejected it the first time, to risk the wrath of their supporters by going into the voting lobbies to support her deal a second time.