May’s Brexit deal is defeated: What could happen next?
No confidence motion throws up several possibilities including a general election
The UK parliament’s rejection of the proposed withdrawal agreement with the EU marked the biggest defeat ever inflicted on any British government.
Theresa May’s Brexit deal, the culmination of two years of complex and often fractious negotiations, was rejected by 432 votes to 202 in the House of Commons on Tuesday night.
The defeat, by a whopping 230 votes, leaves the prime minister wounded politically and with just 72 days to revive her deal before the UK is due to leave the EU. The vote has cast doubt on how the UK might leave the EU and on the timing of its exit.
The vote throws up a range of possible scenarios, adding to the uncertainty around the entire Brexit process and deepening the worst British political crisis in generations.
- A possible general election? Labour could set parliament on course for an election now that Jeremy Corbyn has called for a vote of no confidence in the government on the back of the rejection of May’s deal. That vote is expected to be held on Wednesday evening. May is expected to win the vote because neither the Conservatives nor the Democratic Unionist Party, which supports her minority Tory government, want a general election. If she fails to secure enough support and no government is able to win Labour’s confidence vote within 14 days, the earliest date for an election is 25 days after that. This pushes the UK perilously close to Brexit day and the potential for a disorderly no-deal exit, though a new government could open up new options with the EU to give fresh hope of a deal.
- Returning to Brussels Defeat by such a large number of votes – at the top end of most people’s expectations – has narrowed May’s options on this front. A smaller loss might have allowed May to return to Brussels and seek further concessions on the contentious “backstop” insurance policy to avoid a hard Irish border. The EU’s chief negotiator Michel Barnier, responding to the parliamentary vote, said on Tuesday night: “Now it’s time for the UK to tell us the next steps and our side, we will remain united and determined to reach a deal.”
- Devising a plan B May had, up until Tuesday’s vote, refused to countenance any alternative to her deal, arguing that Brexit may not happen at all if parliament votes it down. She now has to seek a more conciliatory approach with opponents of her deal to try to find a softer Brexit, perhaps based on Norway’s relationship with the EU, enhanced to guarantee no hard Irish border. This will prove tricky given past opposition of MPs to this option. Some 118 of her own Conservative Party’s MPs voted against the deal, so she will struggle to find allies. The government’s defeat in a January 9th vote means she must produce an alternative plan for Brexit within three parliamentary working days. That gives her until Monday.
- Will May resign? The Conservative leader has repeatedly insisted that she will not quit before Brexit so May’s departure, even after such a rejection of her deal, seems unlikely. Her victory in a confidence vote of Tory MPs before Christmas protects her from a forced removal for a year.
- Delaying Brexit The heavy defeat could, if her government survives the confidence vote, lead May to seek or consider seeking a renegotiation of the Brexit deal. To do so, the UK is likely to require an extension of the “article 50” exiting-the-EU process. Brexiteers will go ballistic over this but avoiding a messy no-deal outcome may make this necessary. All 27 EU states must unanimously agree to an extension and MPs would have to vote to change the “exit day” in the EU Withdrawal Act. If the EU says no, that is the end of this option. The EU has so far said it would not renegotiate the divorce deal but it may be open to changing the political declaration, the non-legally binding agreement setting out plans for a future trade deal.
- Cancelling Brexit A European Court of Justice case last month ruled the UK can unilaterally revoke article 50, put an end to Brexit and remain in the EU on the same terms. This option appears remote as neither the Conservative or Labour parties support reversing the UK’s decision to quit the EU in the June 2016 referendum.
- Holding a second referendum While the idea of another public vote on Brexit has the support of a significant number of Conservative and Labour MPs, May has been consistent in her strong opposition to a second referendum. Corbyn has made no secret of his preference for a renegotiated Brexit deal. If his confidence vote falters, the backing of the Labour Party could breathe life into another public vote as an option. New legislation would be needed to call a second vote and this would not happen soon given the electoral rules to be followed. This would inevitably require an extension of article 50.
- Parliament taking control May could lose control of Brexit under a plan proposed by three former Tory ministers. While their chances of succeeding are slim, Nick Boles, Sir Oliver Letwin and Nicky Morgan believe their “European Union Withdrawal Number 2 Bill” would allow MPs effectively take back control in a bid to get a plan B through parliament if May fails a second time.
- No deal This is the only scenario opposed by a majority of MPs and is the automatic option should May’s deal be rejected and parliament cannot agree an alternative by March 29th. This would result in the UK’s departure from the EU, accompanied by costly tariffs and chaotic uncertainty as divergent economic rules come into force overnight. The government’s defeat in a January 8th vote to limit the treasury’s capacity to tax in the event of a no-deal was more symbolic: a signal of the desire of MPs to stop a disorderly Brexit. Despite the strength of opposition to this, the UK could end up there if there is no majority support for an alternative.