- Theresa May has suffered a series of parliamentary defeats ahead of the big vote on her Brexit deal on Tuesday, January 15.
- MPs are set to hold a “meaningful vote” on her deal, which the government is overwhelmingly likely to lose.
- Thanks to an amendment passed on Wednesday May will then have to bring forward a “Plan B”
- A range of chaotic scenarios could come into play, depending on the size of her defeat.
- Here’s what could happen next.
LONDON – Rebel Tory MPs inflicted another defeat on Theresa May on Thursday when they joined forces with Labour to back a key amendment to the Brexit process.
The vote, means the government will now have to return with a fresh strategy for Brexit if, as appears overwhelmingly likely, her deal with the EU is rejected by the House of Commons next week.
It was only allowed after the Commons Speaker John Bercow breached parliamentary convention in order to give MPs a vote, triggering a furious public row in the chamber between him and those on the government benches.
It follows an even more damaging defeat on Tuesday, when rebel MPs moved to cripple the government’s tax-raising powers in the event of a no-deal Brexit in an effort to make such an outcome unviable.
It all adds up to a picture of a prime minister rapidly losing control of the Brexit process.
So does any of this change what we can expect to happen as Britain approaches the Brexit deadline of March 29? Here are the most likely scenarios after May loses the vote on her Brexit deal next week.
1. May’s deal is put to a vote a second time
Perhaps the likeliest scenario is a second vote on the deal. Under the terms of the amendment backed by MPs on Wednesday, the prime minister will have to bring a new plan to the House within three days. This new plan will then be debated on and ultimately voted on by MPs.
Exactly what that vote will look like remains uncertain. May could choose to simply put the current deal before parliament a second time. Faced with the prospect of a disruptive no-deal exit, another referendum, or a general election, Downing Street believes sceptical MPs could be cajoled into supporting it.
However, the problem with asking the same question twice is that you tend to get the same answer twice. Most MPs now believe that the deal would simply be rejected again unless there is some substantial renegotiation with the EU.
So far the EU appears extremely reluctant to consider that. If that continues to be the case then the prime minister will have to consider other options.
2. Hand control to parliament
One idea that is gaining currency inside May’s government is to hand responsibility over the next steps to parliament. If there is genuinely no majority for the prime minister’s deal, or no-deal, then the argument goes that MPs must be put in charge of discovering what there actually is a majority for. This could take the form of holding a series of so-called indicative votes whereby MPs would test the support in parliament for a range of different Brexit outcomes. These could include the following:
3. A second referendum
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.
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.
The Labour leadership is also highly reluctant to back a new vote believing that to do so would cost the party dearly at the next election. However, Corbyn is under growing pressure from senior members of his party, including the Shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer, to change stance. The party is also committed, under the terms of a motion agreed unanimously at the last Labour party conference, to leave the option of a second vote open if all other options fail.
The People’s Vote campaign believe that Corbyn’s support for a new vote is the only way it can happen. Unless he can be convinced, the chances of a second referendum before Britain leaves looks slim.
4. A general election
If May is unable to get a deal through parliament then one option open to her is a general election. One way that could happen is Labour calling a no-confidence vote after the deal fails, but that would depend on them being able to find Conservative MPs who were willing to vote against their own government, which is unlikely.
Another way would be for Theresa May simply to call an election and secure a new mandate for her Brexit deal from the public, although that is also unlikely following her disastrous experience of calling a snap election in 2017. However, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn 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.
However, if there is no majority for her deal or a referendum then Conservative MPs committed to opposing no-deal could theoretically be forced into bringing down their own government.
5. An Article 50 extension
Downing Street remains officially opposed to extending Article 50 and delaying Brexit. But such an outcome is becoming more likely, with minister Margot James becoming the first to break ranks on Monday and suggest that the government would need to if May’s deal is rejected in parliament. Recent reports also suggest government officials have been putting out feelers with the EU about the possibility of an extension.
Labour is also gradually moving towards backing an extension, with the Shadow Brexit Secretary Keir Starmer saying on Wednesday that doing so may now be “inevitable”. Even the Labour leadership appears to be shifting in that direction, with Corbyn’s spokesman insisting on Wednesday that while they are now “pressing” for an extension, it may have to happen.
However, the EU has indicated that it would only grant the UK an Article 50 extension in certain circumstances: To ratify the deal, or to hold a general election, or a second referendum. Any extension would also likely only last for a few months, meaning crucial decisions would still have to be made in the UK this year. A longer extension would likely only be granted if May was to drop her negotiating red lines on leaving the Customs Union and Single Market, something she has repeatedly committed not to do.
6. A no-deal Brexit
A defeat for the government on Tuesday to the Finance Bill made it clear that there is now no majority for a no-deal Brexit in parliament. However, under the terms of Article 50, there doesn’t need to be. Under legislation passed overwhelmingly by MPs, the UK will simply crash out on March 29 if no deal has been agreed.
There are two distinct types of no-deal exit however. 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.”
However, the fact remains that a no-deal Brexit will only be averted if May’s government takes deliberate steps to prevent it. And so far the option of a no-deal is the only alternative to her deal that May has refused to rule out. Until that changes, the prospect of Britain crashing out without a deal remains very real.
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