No one knows what will happen next, but we can identify key Brexit staging postsby Peter Kellner / February 26, 2019 / Leave a comment
Questions, questions, questions… but very few answers. Has Jeremy Corbyn really had a change of heart about holding a public vote, or is he engaged in a tactical manoeuvre to shore up his position, confident that parliament will never actually pass a new referendum bill? Has Theresa May really decided to rule out no-deal, or is she, too, engaged in a tactical manoeuvre, in her case to prevent mass resignations from her government without completely alienating her hardline backbenchers in the European Research Group? Does either party leader really know what they will say or do tomorrow, or next week, or next month?
Spoiler alert: I don’t know when or how the Brexit drama will end. What we can do is identify the staging posts in the coming days and weeks that will decide the outcome.
First, this Wednesday, MPs are likely to vote on the proposal by Labour’s Yvette Cooper and the Conservatives’ Oliver Letwin to prevent the UK crashing out of the EU on 29thMarch without a deal. Even that is not certain: in order to stave off defeat in parliament and the disintegration of her government, May might sanction a concession to appease anti-no-deal MPs.
My guess—and if you place a bet on this, you do so at your own risk—is that one way or another, we shall reach the point in the next few days when parliament must decide between accepting the Withdrawal Agreement (possibly slightly modified) and delaying Brexit beyond 29th March.
Second, if that does happen, ERG MPs will have a tricky choice to make when the “meaningful vote” takes place, probably on 12th March. Will they stick to their line that it is unacceptable and vote against it? Or will they cave in and back the agreement, scared that if they help to vote it down, they will unleash a chain of events that could lead to a new referendum and the UK not leaving the EU at all? This is the prediction of a number of friends whose judgment I respect, such as Adam Boulton of Sky News and John Rentoul of the Independent.
If the ERG does cave in, then May will probably get her deal through parliament, and the possibility of a referendum will evaporate. However, let us assume that the ERG, or enough of its members, vote against the deal, and May is defeated. That is when Labour’s support for a public vote would come into play.
Here are three scenarios.
– May opposes a referendum, and a majority of MPs back her. If enough pro-Leave Labour MPs defy the party whip (around 25?), and May keeps down the number of pro-referendum Tory rebels (fewer than 20?), then May returns to Brussels and lives to fight another day. With what eventual outcome? Goodness knows.
– May opposes a referendum but a majority of MPs defy her—this time because enough pro-referendum Tory rebels defy the party whip, and outnumber the Labour rebels by a sufficient margin. The UK then heads for a referendum.
– May decides to back a referendum. Don’t laugh. I’m not saying this is likely, but it could happen. Two Labour MPs, Peter Kyle and Phil Wilson, say they would vote for May’s deal if she were to put it to a “confirmatory vote” of the public. If this referendum backed May’s deal, it would automatically come into effect. If most voters opposed it, the UK would remain in the EU. Either way, the matter would be settled. May doesn’t want a referendum; but a number of Tory MPs are sympathetic to the idea; and it could be her best chance of her deal being implemented.
At present only a fool would bet their life savings on any one of these scenarios. Indeed, they do not exhaust all the possibilities. Continuing deadlock is one prospect, with no majority in the House of Commons for any specific way forward. The prime minister might resign, and plunge her party into a divisive leadership election. There is even a risk (or, depending on your view, hope) that the government could collapse completely. In that event, we might have a new general election—or some short-term national government, assembled from today’s MPs, in order to sort out Brexit.
None of these things is likely; but none can be ruled out completely. Other than in wartime, never have the short, medium or long-term prospects for Britain been so uncertain.
At times such as these, it is tempting to take refuge in the words of Arthur Balfour, Conservative prime minister from 1902 to 1905. He shares with May the distinction of leading his party when it was riven by debates about patriotism, trade and enterprise. Trying to soothe frayed nerves, he said: “nothing matters very much, and few things matter all.”
Much of the time, that is true—or, at any rate, truer that those caught up in the day-to-day dramas of politics would care to admit. But it is emphatically not true today. British politics is plunging towards an unknown future, with the leaders of our two main parties frantically struggling day by day to maintain their authority over their MPs. And the outcome of this chaotic process could scarcely be more important.