- UK Prime Minister Theresa May has survived a vote of no confidence in her government.
- She will now need to formulate a Brexit plan which she can force through Parliament.
- The options still left open to May are fraught with difficulty.
- Here’s what could happen over the coming days and weeks.
LONDON – UK Prime Minister Theresa May has survived a no-confidence vote in her government after MPs rejected her Brexit deal on Tuesday in historic numbers.
The government saw off the confidence motion 325 to 306 on Wednesday, with Tory and Democratic Unionist Party rebels who voted against the government on Tuesday uniting in their opposition to the prospect of a government led by Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn.
May must now focus on securing a Brexit plan she can pass through Parliament, after losing Tuesday’s vote on her original plan by the biggest parliamentary margin in modern British history. So what happens next?
May pledges to return to Brussels
May is required to return to Parliament within three days and tell MPs what she plans to do next. The House of Commons doesn’t sit on Friday, meaning her deadline is Monday.
She’s expected to say she respects the will of Parliament and pledge to return to Brussels to renegotiate the much-hated Irish “backstop.” The fallback measure, designed to avoid border checks between Northern Ireland and Ireland, is deeply unpopular with Tory MPs, who say it could bind the UK too closely to European Union rules and would undermine Northern Ireland’s relationship with the rest of the UK.
The question is whether the EU will be willing to renegotiate the deal. Senior EU figures have been dismissive of the prospect, and it is difficult to see May being able to secure the kind of concessions that would assuage the concerns of hardline Brexiteers and the DUP over the backstop.
However, should May be willing to drop some of her negotiating red lines on customs, trade, immigration, or the role of European courts, then the EU would almost certainly agree to a more substantial renegotiation.
But while pledging to renegotiate in Brussels could buy the prime minister some time, the scale of her defeat on Tuesday means that even a renegotiated deal would face an almighty struggle to make its way through Parliament before March 29.
May lets Parliament take back control of Brexit
Downing Street sources said after the defeat on Tuesday night that May would now focus on reaching out to other parties in a bid to find an alternative to her deal. However, as the prime minister pointed out, MPs who are united in opposition to her deal are not united in their proposal of an alternative for leaving the EU.
Those who voted against the government include hardline Brexiteers who support a no-deal Brexit, Remainers who support a Norway-style deal, Remainers who support Labour’s call for permanent customs-union membership, and supporters of a second referendum.
In the coming weeks, should Parliament wish to prevent a no-deal Brexit, it will have to coalesce around one of those alternatives.
So how will this work? Though May appears to be intensely wary, she may eventually agree to hold a series of indicative votes on Brexit options, including her deal, Norway-plus, a Canada-plus free-trade agreement (though it’s unclear whether the EU would agree to that without a backstop), a permanent customs union, and a referendum.
There appears to be growing support for a permanent customs-union membership among MPs – and some ministers think it could win a Commons majority. Many Labour MPs would be likely to support it, so it could be a way through for the prime minister. But that policy would be furiously opposed by many Conservative MPs who are demanding a deal which hands Britain an independent trade policy.
A deal forced through Parliament with the support of Labour MPs and the opposition of a large part of the Conservative Party would be a dangerous option for the prime minister. But that doesn’t mean it won’t happen.
MPs block a no-deal Brexit
An alternative to a series of indicative votes would be a cross-party plan, led by former Conservative Cabinet ministers Nick Boles, Oliver Letwin, and Nicky Morgan, to reverse the “default” setting by which Britain leaves the EU without a deal on March 29.
The plan would see the EU Withdrawal Act amended by a bill dictating that May must ask for an Article 50 extension if Parliament can’t agree on a Brexit option and giving Parliament the chance to devise an alternative Brexit plan the government would be legally required to follow.
This move would be as radical as it sounds, ending the parliamentary convention dictating that only the government can provide time to introduce legislation. It would fundamentally challenge the idea that the executive branch – the government – steers the passage and direction of legislation, handing MPs the right to steer Brexit in whatever direction they wish.
The question is how much support it could command. There is overwhelming opposition to a no-deal Brexit in Parliament, and MPs may decide this bill is not the best mechanism to avoid such an outcome. There are also questions about whether such a bill could find time in Parliament, where convention states that government business takes precedence.
However, senior parliamentary officials told Business Insider this week that an amendment to Monday’s prime-ministerial motion on the Brexit next steps could allow the bill time to pass through parliament, if allowed by Speaker John Bercow. It’s a long shot, but it could just about happen.
One thing is clear: Parliament will do everything in its power to block a no-deal Brexit. But that doesn’t mean it will be successful. Unless MPs can agree on an alternative, it remains the default option.
The reality is that despite the parliamentary majority against a no-deal Brexit, there are not many viable mechanisms for Parliament to actually prevent one, given that it has already passed legislation defining Britain’s exit date into law.
So how could Parliament block a no-deal Brexit? One option would be a new bill to reverse that legal position. However, as discussed above, this would struggle to find time in Parliament.
One of the remaining options would be a general election. However, that remains unlikely because it would probably require Labour to win a motion of no confidence in the government, which would require Conservative MPs to vote against their own prime minister (and most likely result in deselection).
However, some think that given a binary choice between a no-deal Brexit and a Labour government, a few Tory MPs could choose the latter and bring down the government.
A second referendum
The government is unlikely to back a second referendum under any circumstances, but there is growing support in Labour for one, with more MPs joining the “People’s Vote” campaign on Wednesday.
Campaigners believe it all hinges on Corbyn. If he backs a second referendum, it could win a Commons majority, perhaps through an indicative vote as discussed above. Business Insider’s Adam Payne has more details.
May resigns or gets pushed
May can’t technically be deposed as Conservative leader because she saw off a no-confidence vote before Christmas, and party rules mean she can’t be challenged for another 12 months. But the prime minister has already made clear that she will stand down before the next general election, and there are already numerous unofficial leadership campaigns.
May has so far not shown signs of going willingly, stubbornly fighting on after losing her majority at the general election, seeing dozens of resignations from her frontbench, losing the support of more than a third of her MPs in a confidence vote, and losing the vote on her Brexit deal by a historic margin.
However, no reign lasts forever, and it is still possible that her colleagues will ultimately force her hand.
Will May extend Article 50?
All Brexit options apart from a no-deal scenario are likely to require an extension of Article 50, something Downing Street is now refusing to rule out. Business Insider’s Adam Bienkov explains why in more detail here.
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