The writing is now on the wall for the UK. Two and half years after the narrow 52-48 victory of Leave at the EU referendum (turnout 37%), the government is in disarray. The deal Theresa May has negotiated with the European Union satisfies just over two-thirds of MPs in the Conservative parliamentary party. Some 80 MPs have declared that they will vote against the Withdrawal Agreement along with the DUP, Labour, the regional parties in Scotland and Wales, the Libdems and Caroline Lucas, the Greens’ sole MP.
On this basis the deal is doomed. Faced with the insurmountable task of convincing ideologically motivated hardliners in her party to support the agreement, something they regard as an utter betrayal to bring about the Brexit they sold to the British public, May will fight. She has no alternative. It is now Brexit on her terms or bust. Politically she cannot survive a disorderly Brexit.
Should the Prime Minister – against all odds – win the vote she will accept the accolades of a country relieved that Brexit is settled regardless of the political and economic fallout. Most ordinary people simply do not care anymore. They just want the issue settled. And she might – and there are a multitude of signs pointing in this direction – attempt to lead the Conservatives forward to the next election in 2022 as the Prime Minister who delivered Brexit. Seeing as Tory MPs fear a Labour government led by Jeremy Corbyn more than the devil hates the sight of holy water, May’s occupancy of No 10 Downing Street would probably be safe for some time after an orderly Brexit. The European Research Group led by Jacob Rees-Mogg will continue to snipe but their bluff will have been called. The chances of a government led by arch-Brexiter Boris Johnson will have dissipated. May will be able to focus on a domestic agenda heavily encumbered by the financial burden of Brexit. And when times get tough, she will continue to blame the EU for the UK’s woes.
But the more likely outcome is defeat when the Withdrawal Agreement comes to the House of Commons. This is likely to happen before the next EU summit on 13 December. The date favoured in the government is believed to be 12 December. Thus, it is time to consider what will happen. The consensus of the day in London is that no-one in Westminster knows. This is anything but helpful in a time of national crisis and symptomatic of the Brexit process. A “No” vote would mean the Withdrawal Agreement is dead but not quite buried. But with no alternative readily available an outcome no-one professes to want (except hardline Brexiters) would raise its ugly head again: a disorderly no deal Brexit accompanied by a crash of the pound and stocks and panic in business.
The first development after such a defeat might well be a leadership challenge. Conservative party rules require that 48 letters from Tory MPs must be submitted to Sir Graham Brady, Chairman of the backbench 1922 committee, to trigger a leadership challenge. The chair of the so-called European Research Group, Jacob Rees-Mogg failed ahead of the special EU summit to get the required number of letters submitted but many Brexiter MPs are believed to be keeping their powder dry until after 12 December. Should May face a leadership challenge, she will fight it but the government will be paralysed, May a lame duck.
Assuming that there is no leadership challenge, the government would have to announce what it plans to do after losing the vote in accordance with the Withdrawal Act. And to do so within 21 days. A week later Theresa May would have to invite MPs to debate the impasse. They would have a vote on legislation introduced by the government to chart its future course. But there is a big problem here. Should the government sit on its hands and do nothing, the country would simply roll off the cliff on 29 March into a no deal reality. No deal is the default position.
However, as long as Theresa May is in No 10 and not a hardline Brexiter there is no reason to assume that HM government – having published numerous papers on the negative impact of a no deal scenario – would let this happen. The situation would change dramatically were Theresa May be ousted in a leadership contest and replaced by an arch Brexiter and proponent of a no deal Brexit.
If May wards off a challenge her first option could be an attempt to renegotiate with Brussels in a bid to revive the Withdrawal Agreement. Although the EU has ruled out such a development, the pressure on European leaders to make cosmetic changes to save the Agreement would be intense. But substantial changes of the kind required for a major shift in opinion amongst MPs can be ruled out. The EU27 will never agree to fundamental changes to the Agreement.
Should Brussels stand firm, the Prime Minister could insist on another Commons vote in the hope that faced with Brussels’ intransigence, financial and economic turmoil and political crisis arising from the first vote a sufficient number of MPs would fold and allow the Withdrawal Agreement to pass.
But with the cards stacked so heavily against the Withdrawal Agreement in the Commons, the outcome of a second vote is unlikely to be substantially different to that of the first.
There is much speculation that Theresa May could call an early general election at this point. This of course would delight Labour. May has repeatedly ruled this option out quite categorically. Of course she did precisely the same thing in the spring of 2017 before calling an election at which she lost her Commons majority. But indeed, at the present time little speaks for this option. Firstly, May would be very hesitant to take such a risk not least because she performs badly on the stump. Secondly, a majority of MPs would have to favour the dissolution of parliament according to the terms of the Fixed Term Parliament Act introduced in 2011. That appears unlikely in such turbulent circumstances. Thirdly, a general election at such a crucial period in the country’s history, when there is only one issue on the political agenda, would inevitably make it a one issue vote. The result would be confusion amongst large parts of the electorate not least because the two major parties are split down the middle on Brexit.
The final option would appear to be another referendum. Not a rerun of 2016 with its binary choice but a vote on the terms of our departure from the EU with the option to remain. This could conceivably give voters the chance to express preferences with three options: the Withdrawal Agreement, no deal or remain in the EU. Calls for a People’s Vote brought a million protesters to London in October. However, it is not they who would decide even though opinion polls now indicate that a majority of people in the country would like to see a People’s Vote take place. It would require majority support in the Commons and some five months to prepare owing to the need to legislate for it. That level of support is not yet there. Moreover, to make this happen the EU would have to agree to postpone Brexit beyond March. But seeing as elections to the European Parliament take place in May, and a People’s Vote would have to be held before that, time has all but run out for this option.
And so as the UK heads towards a vote which will either determine the terms of its departure from the EU or plunge it into unprecedented political turmoil and a disorderly Brexit, it is worth noting that this mess is entirely self-inflicted.
It is the making of David Cameron who chose to offer the country a binary choice on an issue few understood and which was exploited by the populist Leave campaign whose activities included breaching electoral law. The outcome has left the country split asunder. Theresa May has compounded the divisions with soundbites such as Brexit means Brexit in the full knowledge that there had not been thorough debate on what was at stake or on what Brexit actually means. It is hard to imagine that these divisions will be overcome any time soon whatever the outcome of the upcoming vote on the Withdrawal Agreement. Rather, the quarrelling and the divisions could last for a generation or more.