Brexit: so what happens now?

15 Jan 2019


This evening at around 8pm, Theresa May is set to suffer one of the most crushing political defeats in modern British history. After delaying the vote on her much criticised Withdrawal Agreement by almost a month, the Prime Minister is widely expected to lose tonight’s parliamentary ballot on the bill by as many as 200 votes.


British politics could find itself in a new realm of uncertainty, and what happens in the coming days and weeks is anyone’s guess. Cutting through the mire of speculation, here are five of the scenarios that might unfold:


Theresa May Resigns


The likelihood of this depends on the size of the defeat she suffers. Veteran Tory MP Bill Cash told May this afternoon that when she loses, she should resign “with dignity and without rancour”. Even so, a less resounding defeat (under 100 votes) may be enough for her to stay on. Under ordinary circumstances, a defeat of around 200 votes would signal that time was up for a Prime Minister. But these are far from ordinary circumstances.


Mrs May has been insistent that she will see the Brexit process out to the end. Last month she survived a no-confidence vote from her own party - giving her immunity from such challenges for 12 months. Fresh from that victory, May might, oddly, be in a stronger position than ever to see Brexit over the line.





Mrs May could return to Brussels seeking further concessions on the deal. As the risk of a damaging no-deal Brexit increases, so the argument goes, renegotiation would become a prime objective for both the EU and the UK.


If the EU are willing to reconsider their position on the Irish backstop and make other concessions, this may be enough to convince rebellious MPs to vote for the new deal. But May cannot simply return with further clarifications and assurances over the Irish Backstop. She will need to make meaningful, legal changes to the deal if she is to win over the hardline Brexit supporters who fill her backbenches.


But there are significant challenges for this option. Renegotiation may involve extending of Article 50 - which would require the assent of all 27 EU member states, many of whom are not eager to lengthen a process which has already caused such turmoil. Furthermore, if the deal is defeated by a margin as large as some are predicting, the EU might see no point in renegotiating a deal that is destined to fail.



General election


Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party have made no secret of their desire to trigger a general election. By putting forward a motion of no confidence in the government - possibly as early as this evening - the Labour leader could end Theresa May’s tenure as Prime Minister with the help of her own MPs.


If enough disgruntled Tories support Labour in a no confidence vote, May would be automatically ousted and the Conservatives would have two weeks to form a government under a new leader. If they fail, the UK would head back to the polls.


Despite this being the preferred outcome on the opposition benches, it seems incredibly unlikely to unfold. Both Conservative and DUP MPs have categorically stated they would support the government in the event of a confidence vote. Regardless of their distaste with the Withdrawal Agreement, many Tories find Theresa May a far more appealing leader than the alternatives.



No deal Brexit


A no deal Brexit is currently the default position. Despite this, the one thing there seems to be an actual majority for in the House of Commons is to prevent it from happening.


220 MPs have publicly stated that they will attempt to stop this in whatever way possible, and a number of amendments to the withdrawal agreement were passed last week that aimed to reduce the likelihood of no deal.


But these amendments have a relatively small standing in the overall process, and a proposed amendment from Labour’s Hilary Benn - that would have rejected May’s deal and no deal simultaneously - was withdrawn this morning to maximise the defeat the PM will suffer.


In the grand scheme of things, unless there is a change to UK legislation before the end of March, a no-deal could simply happen by accident.




Second referendum


A year or so ago, the prospect of holding a second referendum was largely derided by most MPs in the House of Commons as unrealistic. However, in recent months this movement has gained considerable support - both within Westminster and across the UK.


Its viability hinges on the outcome of a no confidence motion tabled by Mr Corbyn. The party’s policy dictates that if Labour fail to secure a general election (which is likely), all other options remain on the table - including a so-called ‘People’s Vote’.


Yet, again, there are big challenges to this idea. So far, the opposition frontbench - wary that many crucial Labour constituencies voted for Brexit - has been reluctant to support a second referendum, though this may change if their no confidence motion fails.


On top of this, a referendum requires an act of parliament before it can go ahead, and may take several months to organise. Even if Article 50 could be extended to give enough time for a second referendum, there just isn’t the support in the Commons - as things stand - to pass the legislation required.


All things considered, none of these options seem likely. However, by definition, one has to happen by the end of March. Good luck predicting which one will prevail.


A Backbench Report by James Plumb


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