29 March 2019

After another defeat for the Prime Minister, Jill Rutter attempts to work out what happens next in the UK

The Prime Minister failed less badly – but failed again – to get the House of Commons to support her Withdrawal Agreement. This means that the European Council’s offer of a guaranteed extension for an orderly Brexit on 22 May has disappeared. Instead of spending the weekend celebrating her triumph in taking the UK out of the EU on the 29th March, the Prime Minister needs to spend it coming up with a plan for the week ahead.

The baton is passed back to MPs on Monday

The immediate action on Monday will be round two of the process – initiated by Conservative MP Oliver Letwin – to see if MPs can succeed where the Government has failed and agree on a way forward. But, as the PM said today, the options being voted on are about the future relationship or the process of deciding: they all need a withdrawal agreement.  

It may be that an option commands a majority. The onus then would be on the Government to agree to follow MPs’ views – most likely to seek a closer economic relationship or a confirmatory referendum. If it doesn’t, then the House may try to legislate to compel it: but that would need to pass the House of Lords as well as the Commons.

The next deadline is 10 April

While MPs will spend the weekend whatsapping each other about options, the European Council President has already called an emergency council on 10 April. That could set the date for a no deal Brexit – and the EU made clear today there would be no “managed no deal” or sectoral minideals – possibly as early as 11.00 pm on 12 April, or possibly as late as 1 July, the day before the new European Parliament meets. The fear in the EU might be that if the UK stays a member state it could revoke Article 50 and then become a member state with no MEPs. That points to earlier rather than later Brexit.

But the Prime Minister has a second option: to ask for a longer extension and agree to run European Parliament elections. The EU has made one condition for that – a clear plan to resolve the impasse that goes beyond sending more UK negotiators to demand a unilateral exit from the backstop. The PM would probably need the express permission of the House to do this and would need to change the date of exit in UK law.

Anything can happen in the next 12 days

Before the emergency council takes place, the PM has a number of options. There are so many moving parts that predicting what happens next is even more complicated than usual. The PM could:

  • Attempt to get the Meaningful Vote through again (if she can get round the Speaker) – with or without a changed Political Declaration to reflect any possible outcome from the Letwin process.  If the PM can do this before 10 April then she should be able to get a short extension to ensure she can get the legislation through. But the most likely option – tacking on a permanent customs’ union, is toxic in the Conservative Party.
  • Announce soon that she is seeking a longer extension from the EU – and reveal the cunning plan B that she has been hiding away. That could be a new process to come up with cross-party agreement on the future relationship, or it could be a commitment to offer another referendum – the option its proponents think only goes live if every other route has failed to produce a result.
  • Trigger a General Election. If she manages to get the two-thirds majority needed next week, and seeks a longer extension, the European parliament elections can be drowned out by holding a General Election on the same day. The only problem is that two days ago she said she would stand down as leader and many Conservatives will be reluctant to see her lead them into an election campaign. So the Conservatives might have to unify around an election leader to avoid a prolonged contest. Many egos would have to be submerged for that to happen. The time needed for an election campaign would mean that the PM would still need to ask for an extension.
  • Batten down the hatches for No Deal – and challenge Parliament to stop her. Exit on 12 April is the new default in UK law. Many in her own party will see this, followed by a leadership contest, as their preferred option.
  • And, to complete the set (though it's hard to see the PM even contemplating this), until we leave the EU the UK always has the option to revoke Article 50 without asking permission from the EU – to stay on as an EU member, and not just to buy some breathing space. 

Meanwhile in the real world

Civil servants will be scrambled for no deal. Businesses will be in (even more) despair. Something has to happen. It’s just as unclear as ever what that might be.