LONDON — Theresa May has bought herself more time to win round MPs skeptical about her Brexit deal by delaying a key vote in the House of Commons — but all outcomes are still on the table.
May conceded in her statement to the House of Commons Monday that the deal would, as it stands, be rejected by a “significant margin.”
Opposition parties are against the deal; over a hundred Conservative MPs — both Leavers and Remainers — also oppose it; the Democratic Unionist Party that props up Theresa May’s government is against.
In favor: the rest of the Conservatives’ 315 MPs and, possibly, a low number of Labour MPs fiercely committed to delivering Brexit for Leave voters in their constituencies. Not enough to win.
The prime minister will now seek “further assurances” from EU leaders about the controversial Northern Ireland backstop — the element of the deal that is designed to avoid a hard border but which many MPs cannot stomach. Assuming Tory MPs do not move to depose her in the meantime, leading to a leadership contest, she will eventually have to bring the deal back to the Commons for a vote.
Here’s how things might go, according to some key players who will shape the process:
Blocking no-deal Brexit
One key thing to note in this process is the Labour Party holds many of the cards.
It is they, with their 257 MPs, who will make or break any effort by parliament to force the government down one or other path.
Although May has portrayed a vote against her deal as a vote for no deal, Starmer says the first priority is to prevent the U.K. crashing out of the EU.
“No deal is not an option. Labour will not countenance no deal — and nor would many of the prime minister’s own MPs,” he has said.
He will be joined in these efforts by other opposition parties — the Scottish National Party, with 35 MPs, the centrist Liberal Democrats with 12, Welsh nationalist party Plaid Cymru with four and the one Green MP.
SNP Leader and Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon was in Westminster last month attempting to forge a united front between the opposition parties. They cannot agree on a single route forward, but they do agree on blocking no deal. A significant number of Conservative MPs are also dead set against such an outcome.
It looks likely that there is a majority in the House of Commons against no-deal, and the legislature showed last week — when it successfully voted the government in contempt of parliament over its refusal to publish its Brexit legal advice — that it can enforce its will.
Rethink under pressure
Global market reaction to an eventual rejection of May’s deal would likely be dramatic. May’s statement delaying the vote itself prompted a fall in the value of the pound and European stocks.
Under this kind of pressure MPs may feel inclined to amend the deal on the table rather than reach for more chaotic options, such as a general election or a second referendum. Former Treasury official Rupert Harrison has dubbed this the “TARP” scenario — a reference to the U.S. bank bailout plan in 2008 that was initially rejected by Congress, causing a market shock that persuaded lawmakers to back an amended version at a second attempt.
Such a scenario opens the possibility of parliament seeking to force the government into a renegotiation.
Depending on which of the many possible amendments secure majority support, May could be sent back to Brussels again seeking the kind of softer Brexit demanded by opposition parties and some Tory MPs, like Nick Boles, who argues for a Norway-style model.
How the EU would respond to such renegotiation requests is difficult to predict — and the countdown clock will not have stopped ticking.
Cabinet minister Andrea Leadsom | Daniel Leal-Olivas/AFP via Getty Images
But if May were to return from a renegotiation with much the same deal, with the pound crashing and opinion polls suggesting the public is crying out for a deal one way or another — perhaps the views of those currently opposed would change and MPs would back the prime minister’s Brexit agreement on the second attempt.
A renegotiation may require more time. The legally enshrined Brexit date is already just four months away. One means by which parliament could block (or at least delay) a no-deal exit is by demanding May ask for the negotiating period to be extended.
Former Attorney General Dominic Grieve said such an extension would be “absolutely essential” if May’s deal is voted down, to allow time for a new course to be set.
Extension would require a U-turn from May, who has ruled it out. It would also need unanimous approval from EU27 countries.
Charles Grant of the Centre for European Reform think tank said he thinks the upper limit of any extension could be “mid-May” because of the upcoming European Parliament election, but in extremis the EU could be flexible.
“Britain’s seats in the European Parliament have already been reallocated and it would be legally complicated to keep the U.K. in the EU beyond the elections,” Grant wrote in a blog for the CER. “But if the EU really wanted to prolong British membership by several months, there could be ways around the European Parliament problem; for example, the U.K. could appoint MPs as MEPs on an interim basis.”
The European Court of Justice ruled on Monday that the U.K.’s declaration under Article 50 to leave the EU can be withdrawn unilaterally, without the permission of other EU countries. But the judgement says that it must be an “unequivocal and unconditional decision” — in other words a genuine change of heart about Brexit, rather than a way of playing for more time.
Importantly, Labour’s preferred outcome following a rejection of May’s deal is a general election.
Starmer lists a vote of no confidence in the government as one option to prevent no deal. If the government lost such a vote by a simple majority, and no new administration could be formed by other parties in 14 days, an election would have to take place.
However, there is a big block to this route: Conservative MPs and the DUP.
The DUP has ruled out turning against May in a confidence vote, so long as her deal — with its Irish backstop — has been rejected. It’s the backstop they want to get rid off, not May.
And while many Conservatives may be preparing to vote against May’s deal, few are willing to bring down their own government and trigger a chain of events that could end with Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn as prime minister — and some of them losing their jobs.
Another option, and one view favorably by the SNP and other smaller opposition parties, is a second referendum.
Grieve believes 10 to 15 of his Conservative colleagues could also back such a plan (several are already publicly supporting the option) and that a larger group could be persuaded if parliament is in a state of deadlock after rejecting May’s deal.
He said May’s deal looks like “an extraordinarily third-rate outcome which leaves us significantly disadvantaged compared to remaining in the EU.”
“I’m not prepared to just let it go through on the basis that I’m going to make the decision and tell the public this is what we’ve decided — I won’t do that. I want a referendum on it,” he said.
One obstacle is agreeing the question.
Justine Greening favors putting leaving without a deal on the ballot as a third option | Oli Scarff/AFP via Getty Images
Grieve’s preferred referendum question would be a choice between May’s deal and remaining in the EU. Another option would be to put leaving without a deal on the ballot paper as a third option, something favored by another Tory advocate of a second referendum, Justine Greening.
Ultimately, of course, it does not matter how many Conservative MPs might back a second referendum if Labour do not.
The party has not ruled it out if they fail to force an election, and both leader Jeremy Corbyn and Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell have said the option remains on the table. However, close Corbyn ally Jon Trickett, the party’s Shadow Cabinet Minister, speaking to Sky News last week, portrayed a referendum as an option for the party only when all others had been attempted.
Tom McTague contributed reporting to this article.