The Prime Minister will be left with three possible options if, as is likely, she loses the meaningful vote on her Brexit deal. Her first option is to stick with her agreement after some further tweaking and hope to win the backing of enough MPs to win a second vote in Parliament. Her second option is to radically change the substance of her offer to Parliament and instead offer a much softer form of Brexit or even endorse no deal. Finally, and most radically, she could take her deal to the electorate by calling a general election or legislating for a second referendum.
Option 1: stick and tweak
The Prime Minister can choose to stick with a tweaked form of her agreement and ask the Commons to reconsider against the backdrop of a clock ticking down to exit. If her deal were defeated narrowly then this might be her best option.
In this scenario, the Prime Minister might go to Brussels to supplement the EU’s clarifications on the backstop arrangement with changes to the legal text of her agreement. Indeed, Justice Minister Rory Stewart last week suggested that amendments passed to the motion might enable Theresa May to go to the EU27 and say that she now knew what it would take for the deal to pass. If any further appeals to Brussels are to work, however, it would need to be clear that any new changes to the deal would get the Prime Minister over the line. The EU will not want to be negotiating by proxy with the European Research Group or the DUP.
Theresa May might also try to provide further domestic assurances in an attempt to bring over waverers. The Government has already said it is minded to accept Labour MP John Mann’s amendment on entrenching labour and environmental rights, and the PM has indicated a greater role for Parliament in helping to shape the future relationship. The Prime Minister may yet seek to offer further concessions in the Withdrawal Agreement.
Option 2: pivot on substance
A large defeat in the meaningful vote would suggest that minor tweaking of the deal is not an option. This scenario would require the Prime Minister to come up with a substantially altered deal, perhaps offering those MPs who don’t have a problem of principle with the withdrawal agreement a different vision for the future relationship. If the “Norway Plus” or “Common Market 2.0” option had enough support then she could indicate a preparedness to reopen the non-binding political declaration to put that back on the negotiating table. That would be a firm pivot towards a softer Brexit.
Alternatively she could repeat her insistence that the choice is a binary one between her deal or no deal. This would set the country on course for no deal, and would leave Theresa May relying on the default position – that the UK will leave the EU, with or without a deal, on 29 March – to see her through.
Option 3: pivot on process
The final option is to pivot on process and settle on a radical course of action to allow her deal to survive. She could – with Labour connivance – trigger a general election to give her a mandate for her deal, or she could choose to put the issue back to the people and announce plans to introduce legislation for a second referendum.
The Prime Minister’s track record to date – with the exception of her decision to call a snap general election in 2017 – suggests that the first of three options will be her preferred course of action: she will dig in, tweak and fight rather than opt for a daring game changer.
Or… everybody else’s options
If she loses the meaningful vote, there is no guarantee that the Prime Minister will be the mistress of her fate. So who else could take control of the Brexit process, and what might they attempt to do?:
Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour frontbench. The big issue for them on Tuesday night will be whether the time is yet right for a ‘no confidence’ vote in the Government. Anything other than an immediate no confidence vote in the wake of a heavy defeat will lead to accusations that they are running scared of being forced to back a second referendum.
The DUP. If the Prime Minister’s deal fails, Theresa May should still be able to count on the DUP’s support in a confidence debate.
The Cabinet. Theresa May’s Cabinet can just about hold together over her current agreement but any move away from it risks a split. This may come in terms of walk-outs – a number of ministers have said they will resign if she moved to back No Deal and others would feel bound to go if she pivoted in another direction. But the Cabinet might finally decide to try to take back control from the PM and No.10 and impose a way forward. The PM would then have to decide if she really wanted to hang on.
Conservative pro-Brexit backbenchers. In December the dissident backbenchers rallied 120 votes of no confidence in the Prime Minister. They cannot formally challenge her again. But the PM may face further attempts from her ‘no deal’ faction to back their preferred course of action – or they may just decide to bid their time and let inertia take its course.
Soft Brexit/People’s Vote-supporting MPs. There is an increasingly active group of MPs from both major parties who do not support the position of their respective frontbenchers. These are the people making waves with proposals for new forms of future relationship or agitating for a second referendum.
They are flexing their muscles in an attempt to determine what happens next – and expect to be putting down amendments when the Prime Minister tables her motion next Monday. But a key question is whether they really do constitute a workable parliamentary majority, who can impose their will on their Parliamentary colleagues; or whether we see a repeat of the bitter disunity we saw before Christmas, recognizing that these people are united by a negative – dislike of the PM’s deal – and differ enormously on the positive way forward.
The Speaker. He changed the rules of the game last week. Parliament will only be able to take control of the process (as opposed to veto what the PM wants) with the Speaker’s consent. Other than the Prime Minister, John Bercow is probably the most important player in the next stage of the Brexit process.
The Irish Prime Minister. The other person who has the power to change the game is the Irish Prime Minister. Leo Varadkar. If he was prepared to offer comfort on the exit from the backstop he could yet emerge as a key player in the UK’s end game.