If MPs want a deal they have to vote for one—and May’s deal is what’s on offerby Aarti Shankar / March 13, 2019 / Leave a comment
MPs have once again decisively rejected the government’s Brexit deal, by a margin of 149. With only 16 days to go until the UK is formally due to leave the EU, what happens next?
First, the House of Commons will vote today on whether to leave without a deal at the end of the month. MPs are almost certain to oppose this outcome, particularly given neither main party is supporting it—the prime minister yesterday agreed to grant Conservative MPs a free vote on the issue, while Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn called for no-deal to be taken off the table. There are simply not the numbers in parliament to force the government to pursue the no-deal outcome.
If a no-deal Brexit is rejected today, MPs are very likely to vote tomorrow for the government to request an extension to Article 50, to allow the UK more time to find a path through this parliamentary deadlock. The EU will probably take a decision on this at next week’s European Council summit. While the bloc is generally expected to accept such a request, it will not come without difficult decisions for the UK—most importantly, how long a delay should be, and why.
As a recent Open Europe analysis shows, member states have nuanced opinions on an extension. Some may prefer a shorter delay—perhaps because they don’t want the Brexit question to drag on; they don’t want it to affect the upcoming European parliamentary elections and therefore EU decision-making; or even because they believe a short extension could force the UK to confront hard choices.
Others—and France is the classic example—may argue for a longer extension. Given the size of the prime minister’s defeat yesterday, as well the EU’s opposition to rolling calls for delay from the UK, some may believe a longer delay is necessary to give the UK enough space to agree its next steps. The choice for Conservative Brexiteers will look much starker if the UK is in a position next week where parliament has rejected no-deal, and the EU is offering a year-long delay to Brexit.
An extension cannot in of itself resolve the UK’s impasse. While the prime minister yesterday raised the prospect of a second referendum, this doesn’t look likely—there is no majority in parliament for this. May remains opposed and although Labour supposedly backs it, the leadership has been very timid in its support (Jeremy Corbyn didn’t mention it in his statement yesterday after the government’s defeat).
So if MPs prefer an “orderly exit” over no-deal and no Brexit, they will eventually have to vote positively in favour of a deal. The EU has repeatedly stated the existing Withdrawal Agreement is its best offer, and indeed, many key aspects of it are uncontroversial—in particular, the agreement to protect citizens’ rights.
All of this means it remains highly likely a version of this deal will be brought back for a third “meaningful vote.” So what could change in order to get over the line? It is not clear the EU is willing to open further intense negotiations on the Irish backstop. The UK may then instead seek to alter the Political Declaration on future relations to more explicitly state that a range of options remain open after withdrawal—including a closer relationship that Labour MPs could support.
But the central components of the agreement are likely to remain the same. More time will not significantly change the options on the table—Conservative MPs may want to note too that their voters are shifting in favour of the deal, with 54 per cent now backing it. The agreement is a difficult compromise for the UK, but aspects of it are uncomfortable to the EU too. When it comes back, MPs will have to consider whether they can live with it in order to deliver a smooth exit and move on to discussing the future.