OK, so it has been agreed. The Withdrawal Agreement and Political Declaration were signed off today in Brussels. Now Theresa May has to take this back to London and get it through the “meaningful vote” scheduled for
11 December sometime between 10th and 12th December in the House of Commons.
It is pretty much certain she will not manage that, first time at least. Buzzfeed’s Alex Wickham has a list of 92 Conservative MPs opposing it. The Guardian has a summary of the parliamentary arithmetic here. And Matthew d’Ancona also reckons its doomed. But all that is based on the first time the deal is put to the Commons.
The question then is what happens after the first time this is put to the Commons, and how does the ensuing crisis play out?
Option 1: just hold the line
Vote. Fail. Wait. And see what happens. How do the markets react? Do MPs have remorse as a result, want to consider voting again? This is where Theresa May’s hopes seem to lie just at the moment – up the pressure, and then make MPs vote again, and the deal might just squeak through. There is of course some irony to wanting MPs to vote again, when the people have resolutely been denied the opportunity to vote a second time in a referendum, but then consistency has never been a value for any players here. Some are banking on the so called TARP option – that markets tanking would force Parliament’s hand. Take back control, eh? Chances: I can’t see this holding for more than a week or so, and a second vote on the exact same option makes no sense.
Option 2: send May back to Brussels
If voting again on the same Withdrawal Agreement (Option 1) is no good, what about a different Withdrawal Agreement? EU leaders were at pains today to say the deal on offer is the best deal and the only deal. There is no appetite, Brussels side, to re-open it. And even if there were, there would have to be a consensus, UK side, as to what was wrong with it. I cannot see any change to the Withdrawal Agreement bringing it closer to a majority. Resort to the original Northern Irish Backstop? DUP and the Scottish Tories scream even louder. Go for a harder Brexit? You lose more pragmatists, those around Nicky Morgan. Go for a Norway-EEA solution? You might win a few Labour MPs to the Tory side, but lose more Brexit hardliners on the Tory benches. And the EU side would say look, why did you not try this before? Stop wasting our time. (Update 9.12.2018, 2100 – Alex Barker in the FT has summed up what Brussels could offer. tl;dr – not much) Chances: I can’t see how this could work, as there is no consensus on what changes to the deal would increase the likelihood of it passing the Commons.
Option 3: May resigns
I suppose this is not impossible, but May has fought through all sorts of problems, and blasted her way through hurdles that would have tripped up others, and she seems to be immune to criticism. So I cannot see her now choosing to go on her own accord. Do read this David Runciman review of a biography of May if you want to understand her character. Also see the May letter to the British people – she genuinely thinks she is delivering here, and has the people with her (even if there is scant evidence of that). Even now I cannot see her going of her own accord. Chances: very low. Not in her character.
Option 4: Tories force May out
Rees-Mogg and the ERG might have failed to gather the 48 letters to force a no-confidence vote in May in late November, but their chances would be higher after May had been defeated in the “meaningful vote”. How many MPs could – hand on heart – back May in the immediate aftermath of having voted down the deal she has worked so tirelessly for in the last 18 months? If upwards of 60 Tory MPs were to rebel on the deal vote, I cannot see how May could avoid facing a no confidence vote. The BBC summarises how the no confidence procedure works here. The question of course then is who would be an alternative? Gove? Johnson? Raab? And would the Tory party be willing to just anoint someone again, or would it have to go to the party members this time? David Davis(!) has been mooted as an alternative interim leader to avoid the latter scenario. Were the winner to be a hardliner – or indeed even someone who might contemplate a No Deal Brexit (Raab or Davis maybe), such a person would struggle even more than May to manage to contain Tory rebellion – and defections from the Tory Party to other parties would then be more likely. Chances: this is the one to watch, short term. It has the potential to cause complete chaos and derail the Brexit timetable at the very least.
Option 5: People’s Vote (Second Referendum)
I cannot see how this one plays out right away, because there is no majority for this in the Commons at the moment. But there is growing support for it in the country, and any politician or party willing to contemplate it might get a bounce in the opinion polls. Were the Tories to even be converted to this cause, they might even survive longer in government – and they would surely be more likely to favour that than go for a further General Election (Option 6). It is also perhaps the only option that commands any cross-party support – Tory, Labour, and even SNP and Lib Dem MPs would be willing to back it. The argument would be that Parliament is blocked, so put the issue back to the people. Legislating for, and holding, such a referendum destroys the Brexit timetable (as such a referendum would take more than 20 weeks to organise – explained by UCL’s Constitution Unit here), but the EU might be willing to accept that – as a way of avoiding a No Deal Brexit. Chances: this one is not off the table yet, but it does not yet command wide enough support in Parliament. It might yet happen though.
Option 6: a General Election
What Jeremy Corbyn wants, but few seem to know how to get. The Fixed-term Parliaments Act makes this harder than it used to be. A vote of no confidence in the government, or a vote of two thirds of the House of Commons, can trigger an election – but however much they dislike Theresa May and her Brexit deal, Tory MPs – and even the DUP – do not want to see Jeremy Corbyn in power, and the assumption would be that the Tories would lose a General Election. Chances: Unlikely. I see this only as an option if other options have failed, or in conjunction with other options – perhaps if the Tories replaced May with such a hardliner that s/he could not command a majority due to defections.
Option 7: something else (Article 50 delay?)
The European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018 states that the government must – by 21 January 2019 at the latest – come before Parliament and explain to the House how to proceed if no Withdrawal Agreement has been approved. I presume that one or more of the above options would have been pursued by then. But there is also no majority for a No Deal Brexit in the House of Commons, and by January this could come into play – the Commons could mandate the government of the day to ask for an extension of the Article 50 negotiation period (this is foreseen in Article 50 – with the unanimous agreement of the other 27 Member States of the EU) so as to avoid No Deal Brexit (UPDATE 9.12.2018, 2100: Yvette Cooper has backed this course of action). Or go for the ballistic option of unilaterally withdrawing the Article 50 notification. Or – with the justification that the 2016 referendum was illegal – seek to pause the whole process. Chances: not likely as options in the immediate aftermath of the “meaningful vote”.
So, to conclude: I am worried, fascinated, and optimistic in equal measure here. I cannot see how the “meaningful vote” comes out in May’s favour, first time at least. And when it does not, all sorts of ways forward suddenly open. It is going to be one hell of a bumpy December in British and EU politics.
Buckle up, it’s going to be a fascinating ride!
[Update 26.11.2018, 1145]
A couple of developments this morning. First, Keir Starmer has underlined that extending the Article 50 period would be a way to avoid a No Deal Brexit. He’s sort of right, but were May to be the person arguing for that, or were the UK to try to make that case without any viable alternative Brexit plan, I cannot see it getting far with the rest of the EU. But I see why Starmer is saying this. Second, apparently some Tory cabinet ministers are thinking again about EFTA as a way forward (warning: link to The Sun) – this is along the lines of Nick Boles’s “Better Brexit“. This, the cabinet ministers apparently think, would win some Labour MPs over to their side. But given that it would necessitate the continuation of freedom of movement, and would require major changes to the Political Declaration that would be unlikely to find favour in Brussels (at least in the absence of a new UK Prime Minister), it is going to be a rather long road to get there. But Michael Gove apparently favours the idea… and he might be an alternative were May to be ousted. Also a EFTA-style softer Brexit would go right against the rhetoric May has been using about the “sort of Brexit the British people voted for” – trying to sell this one would not be without its problems.
[Update 26.11.2018, 1515]
There is some discussion as to when the “Meaningful Vote” will happen. 10, 11 and 12 December have all been suggested. I have amended the text above accordingly.