Brexit: Eight things that might happen after Tuesday's Commons vote
Parliamentary vote could have a number of possible outcomes, including another referendum
British prime minister Theresa May speaks at a press conference in Brussels last month. Photograph: Sean Gallup/Getty Images
On Tuesday the British parliament is due to vote on the Brexit withdrawal agreement brokered with the European Union by prime minister Theresa May. Mrs May faces a mammoth task to win the vote, with opposition to the deal from all sides of the floor in the House of Commons. If she does indeed lose the vote, the outlook for the future of Britain's exit from the EU is uncertain to say the least. Here are a number of scenarios that may come into play after the vote.
1. The vote is postponed
When Theresa May’s cabinet meets around the coffin-shaped table in Downing Street on Tuesday morning, chief whip Julian Smith will report on the likely outcome of that evening’s vote on the Brexit deal. Unless his success rate at persuading Brexiteer MPs to support the deal improves dramatically over the weekend, Smith will predict a crushing defeat for the prime minister.
Already, a number of ministers are urging May to call off Tuesday evening’s vote, a view shared by Graham Brady, chairman of the 1922 committee of backbenchers.
“I think the most important thing is to have clarity about how we might remove ourselves from a backstop, Northern Ireland protocol situation if we were to enter into one in the future. It’s having the answer to that question of substance that is most important, not the timing,” he said.
“So if that question can be answered in the course of the next few days, then all well and good. If it can’t then I certainly would welcome the vote being deferred until such time as we can answer that question.”
However, as of Monday morning senior Conservative figures, including environment secretary Michael Gove, were continuing to insist the vote would go ahead as planned.
Postponing the vote, which is scheduled for 7pm on Tuesday, is not straightforward and could itself require a vote for the House to adjourn. There is no reason to believe that the DUP, who wants May out of Downing Street, would make life easier for her by sparing her the humiliation of a defeat on her deal.
Procedural ruses to avoid a vote, such as failing to move the motion at the start of the debate on Tuesday or simply talking past 7pm, would be almost as humiliating as a defeat on the Brexit deal. But not quite.
2. The deal is approved
Viewed in Westminster as all but impossible, a victory for May on Tuesday night would mean that Britain will probably leave the European Union on March 29th next year on the terms outlined in her deal.
Without the support of the DUP, who will not support the deal, the prime minister could win only with the support of some Labour rebels. She would need to retain their support to approve enabling legislation for the deal next year.
The DUP has said it would support the government in a confidence vote if the deal is rejected but if it passes, the confidence and supply agreement would be over. One senior DUP figure told me this week that Jeremy Corbyn’s history of support for Irish republicanism would not necessarily prevent the party from toppling a Conservative government.
“It wasn’t a Labour secretary of state who said that Britain had no selfish, strategic or economic interest in Northern Ireland. And it wasn’t a Labour government that signed the Anglo-Irish Agreement that started all this,” he said.
3. May loses by fewer than 50 votes
For a government to lose a vote by any margin on the most important piece of legislation in decades would in normal circumstances be calamitous. But expectations ahead of Tuesday’s vote are so dismal that if May loses by fewer than 50 votes, Downing Street will feel able to claim victory.
To reverse such a loss, May would have to change the minds of perhaps a couple of dozen MPs, probably after securing some changes to the political declaration accompanying the withdrawal agreement. EU leaders are unlikely to offer any concrete concessions when they meet in Brussels next Thursday, not least because they fear that any changes offered so soon would lose their lustre over the Christmas break.
In January, the EU could offer some cosmetic assurances about the backstop, perhaps in the form of an exchange of letters or an interpretive declaration. These would seek to reassure MPs that both sides would seek to avoid invoking the backstop and make every effort to ensure that it does not last for long.
4. A big defeat
More than 100 MPs have already indicated that they will vote against the deal and even if the whips reduce that number by half, May would still lose by more than 100 votes. Such a defeat would lead many prime ministers to step down but May has a dogged sense of duty and is not the resigning type.
If she refuses to go voluntarily, she will probably face a confidence vote in her leadership which she is now likely either to lose or to win by such a narrow margin that her position would be almost untenable.
If she goes, a Conservative leadership election would see candidates from the cabinet, led by home secretary Sajid Javid and foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt, compete against a hard Brexiteer backed by the European Research Group, probably Boris Johnson or former Brexit secretary Dominic Raab.
An expedited process could see MPs choosing two candidates to go before the party membership before Christmas, with a new leader in place in the first half of January. Any new leader would have to pursue a different Brexit strategy or seek substantive changes to the current deal.
5. Renegotiate the deal
EU leaders, the Commission, European Council president Donald Tusk and chief negotiator Michel Barnier all insist that the text of the withdrawal agreement is now closed and cannot be renegotiated. But faced with a new British prime minister and the approaching threat of a no-deal Brexit, they could relent.
One option would be to remove the UK-wide customs element of the backstop, so that the EU-UK customs relationship would be negotiated as part of the future trade arrangement. Instead of a time limit for the transition period, the two sides could renew it every year until a trade deal was agreed.
This would remove the threat of Britain being trapped in the backstop once the transition period expired but it would leave the Northern Ireland-only backstop intact. This would make starker the regulatory divergence between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK and create a customs border in the Irish Sea.
A more radical change would see the EU accede to British Eurosceptic demands for a unilateral exit mechanism from the backstop. Such a change would secure the support even of the DUP because as one of the party’s MPs put it, “it would kill the backstop”.
There have been only two small blips in the history of EU solidarity with Ireland over the backstop. Last summer, a Polish minister suggested the issue should be dealt with as part of the future relationship rather than included in the withdrawal agreement.
And during last October’s summit, German chancellor Angela Merkel mused that if the deadlock over the backstop led to a no-deal Brexit, Ireland could see the creation of the hard border the backstop was designed to prevent.
The Polish minister was slapped down and his government fell into line behind the backstop. Downing Street became greatly excited by Merkel’s remarks but according to those present, she was teasing out the issue intellectually rather than signalling that she wanted a change of course.
Killing the backstop by means of a unilateral exit mechanism remains an unlikely option, not least because it would represent the betrayal of the interests of a remaining EU member-state for the sake of a state that is leaving the union.
An amendment approved by MPs this week means that, if the Brexit deal is defeated next week, any new motion the government brings forward about Brexit in the coming weeks can be subject to amendments.
This will allow MPs to direct the government on what to do next, including a rejection of a no-deal Brexit or an instruction to pursue a certain kind of deal. Although such an instruction is not legally binding, it would be hard for any government to ignore.
Among the Conservative MPs who backed the amendment are some who support what they call Norway-plus – membership of the European Economic Area (EEA) and the European Free Trade Association (Efta) and the EU customs union. The proposal also enjoys the support of many Labour MPs and has the quiet backing of some cabinet ministers.
Under the plan, Britain would accept May’s withdrawal agreement but would modify the political declaration to set Norway-plus as the destination. Norway follows all EU single market regulations and accepts the free movement of people, although the EEA allows for a brake on free movement in certain circumstances.
The plan has a number of difficulties, including the fact that Britain would still have to sign up to a Northern Ireland backstop to ensure that the Border would remain open should London choose to leave the EEA.
Current Efta members are not wholeheartedly enthusiastic about Britain joining, partly because it is so much bigger than the others but also because some British politicians have made clear that they view the arrangement as a temporary one. The EU would impose stricter conditions on Britain than on Norway and would seek to ensure that the arrangement is durable and predictable.
Support for Norway-plus at Westminster has fallen in recent weeks as pro-EU MPs believe the prospect of remaining in the EU altogether has become more likely.
“That ship has sailed,” one former supporter of the plan said. “It’s all about the people’s vote now.”
7. A second referendum
If May’s deal is rejected, the EU refuses to renegotiate it, and Norway-plus cannot win majority support, MPs will face a choice between leaving the EU without a deal and calling a second referendum. There is a clear majority in the House of Commons against a no-deal Brexit so a second referendum is more likely than ever before.
Labour has said that, if May’s deal is defeated, it will seek a general election and if that fails, it will consider all options including “a public vote”. The DUP has made clear that it will support the government in a confidence vote if the deal is rejected, so Labour will not get its general election.
The party is then likely to move swiftly behind the call for a second referendum, which is already backed by the other opposition parties and by a number of Conservative MPs. Some Brexiteers relish the prospect of a second vote, which they are confident will produce a resounding endorsement of Brexit.
If May survives, calling a second referendum could be her best strategy for keeping her party together and keeping her Brexit deal alive. MPs would have to agree on the question to be put on the ballot paper: Leave or Remain? May’s deal or Remain? May’s deal or a no-deal Brexit? Or all three options in a referendum.
A second referendum would take at least 12 weeks to set up and could require a short extension of the article 50 negotiating process, which the EU is likely to grant. Polls this week suggest that, if May’s deal is on the ballot, it would win.
8. No deal
According to article 50, Britain will leave the EU on at 11pm on March 29th, 2019 and unless something intervenes it will do just that, deal or no deal. Although a majority in the House of Commons is opposed to leaving without a deal, MPs have not yet been able to form a majority behind any of the alternatives.
This week’s amendment giving MPs a stronger voice in the direction of Brexit has made no deal less likely but it remains a real possibility if MPs fail to fall in behind May’s deal, Norway-plus or a second referendum. The EU says it will agree skeleton arrangements with Britain to ensure for example that planes can take off and land and that energy supplies will not be interrupted.
But the short-term impact of a no-deal Brexit will be disruptive and costly, as much to Ireland as to Britain, with a likely plunge in sterling and delays to Irish exports into Britain and the rest of Europe.
If these are anxious days in Westminster, there must be sleepless nights in Dublin too.