Of the five possible scenarios for Brexit we laid out in the summer, the Prime Minister is currently trapped in Scenario 3: Deal / No / Renegotiate – where she has a deal with the EU, it is rejected by MPs, and she tries to renegotiate with the EU. But after last week’s European Council, it is far from clear that renegotiation will pave a path back to Scenario 1: Deal / Yes.
Despite a new option emerging, MPs trying to form consensus through a series of indicative votes, the Prime Minister’s preferred tactic is to tough it out and “go down to the wire”. Meanwhile another referendum lurks in the wings as a possible way forward that neither frontbench wants at the moment, but may end up as a last resort.
Rather than spend the remaining three months until the UK leaves the EU bouncing round an ever-narrowing doom loop, with MPs resorting to guerrilla tactics, the Prime Minister should be trying to break the stalemate.
The Prime Minister has now set a date for the debate – week commencing 7 January, with the meaningful vote the next week. But time is short and the Government needs to get over the meaningful vote hurdle to unlock possible ways forward.
The process could look something like the following:
Step 1: Have the meaningful vote – but if there is nothing new on the table, treat as a resumed debate. The Prime Minister could even use another of our suggested tactics and make it a free vote. Assuming the motion is defeated, make clear the immediate next step will be…
Step 2: Allow MPs to have indicative votes on another way forward. This would be to see whether there is any majority for a way forward. At the moment, it looks like no option commands a majority.
If that is right, the Prime Minister’s next gambit could be to try a cross-the-floor tactic designed to unite all those MPs who say they “want to respect the referendum” minus those who cannot accept her backstop.
The risk to her is that this could trigger a confidence motion where the DUP would back the Opposition, so she would need to be confident that her way forward could command cross-party support.
Step 3: Put the Withdrawal Agreement back to MPs – but decouple it from the political declaration. Assuming the indicative votes indicate no majority for a referendum and no majority for a no deal exit, the Prime Minister can take it that there are the votes for an orderly Brexit.
Her deal is the only one on offer that can guarantee an orderly Brexit. She could say to MPs that they need to pass that part of her deal (and the Withdrawal Agreement Bill) to ensure a transition and an opening of negotiations on the future relationship.
She could then make a virtue of the vagueness of the political declaration – the 27 pages on non-legally binding text on the future framework. It encompasses a range of relationships and where the EU has repeatedly made clear that others are possible if UK red lines change.
At its weakest, the Prime Minister could give Parliament the final say on both the mandate and the outcome of the negotiations. If there were an emerging option from the indicative votes, she could promise to make that the UK’s negotiating objective.
Or she could commit herself to allow either parliamentarians – through a parliamentary commission or through a citizens’ assembly (or both) – to consider and recommend their preferred future relationship.
The final, most extreme commitment, would be to promise an early general election as soon as the UK was safely into transition.
Either way, this all needs to happen fast, suggesting a degree of agility that the Prime Minister has not shown before. It also assumes she genuinely believes her deal is in the national interest and she should not willingly head for a disorderly Brexit. But to give her deal a chance, she needs to be more modest about what she has achieved and more open on how to move forward.