05 February 2019

With the Brexit action due to return to Westminster next week, Joe Owen looks at what might happen next

The Prime Minister has got until 13 February to hold a second ‘meaningful vote’ on her deal or backbenchers will get another chance to take hold of the Brexit process.

Next week now looks like the latest in a long line of weeks that are characterised by ‘crucial Brexit votes in Parliament’. And those weeks tend to end in one way – with confirmation that there is a Parliamentary majority against all clear Brexit outcomes. But next week might be different. Here we set out four possible options for how next week might pan out.

Scenario 1: The Prime Minister asks MPs to vote on a deal and it gets approved

This is the best-case scenario for the Government, but it’s beginning to look the least likely.

The Conservative Party may have been united around the idea of ‘alternative arrangements’ to the backstop, but the Prime Minister has had to set up a working group to try and agree what ‘alternative arrangements’ actually mean.

If the Prime Minister is serious about sticking to her commitment to seek “legally binding changes to the Withdrawal Agreement”, she will also need to persuade the EU to play ball. That looks highly unlikely based on the statements of the EU’s chief negotiator Michel Barnier and Martin Selmyar, the top civil servant in the European Commission. 

With almost half of the ‘extra time’ requested by Theresa May now elapsed, there is still no consistent UK position on alternatives and no appetite in the EU to reopen talks. A revised deal of some kind, which looks to be the only way to secure a majority next week, looks more and more out of reach.

Even if the Government were to pull a rabbit out of a hat and win the vote, there would be little respite. It would have just 26 sitting days to get the – bound to be contentious – Withdrawal Agreement Bill through Parliament. Last year’s EU Withdrawal Act took almost 40.

Scenario 2: The Prime Minister asks MPs to vote on a deal – it gets rejected

The Prime Minister is far from certain to get a majority even in the unlikely event she does secure changes to the backstop by next week.

Leading Brexiteers are already saying the so-called “Malthouse Compromise” is as far as they are willing to go (even if it is based almost entirely on their proposals). The fact that the plan is being called the “madhouse compromise” in Brussels indicates how likely it is to be adopted in full any time soon.

The Prime Minister could of course put her deal, unamended, back to Parliament. It would be a brave move - she would have to hope that more than 100 MPs have changed their mind in the last couple of weeks.

If Parliament rejects a deal next week, the Prime Minister will have to set out her new plan and table a motion within three days. MPs would then get their chance to have a say on what comes next. Any meaningful vote would also be amendable, so MPs might make their views known sooner on their preferred next steps.

Scenario 3: The Prime Minister tells MPs her next steps – and MPs don’t get in the way

If there’s no revised deal forthcoming and no dramatic change of heart among (almost all) Conservative backbenchers, the Prime Minister might decide that next week is not the right time for another ‘meaningful vote’ on her deal.

In that case, she will have to make a statement to Parliament on her next steps and table an amendable motion asking Parliament to ‘take note’. Then, on Valentine’s Day, MPs will have an opportunity to vote on amendments which are likely to focus on what happens next in the process, rather than alternatives to her deal.

But MPs are not being given much time to table amendments and collaborate on counter-proposals. There could be less than 24 hours between the Prime Minister’s statement and votes on amendments. The Prime Minister might hope that the rush will work in her favour and help her to get through unscathed, at which point what comes next will depend on what her statement says. But ultimately, if the Prime Minister wants to leave with a deal, she will need to pass a meaningful vote and get legislation through.

Scenario 4: The Prime Minister tells MP her next steps – and MPs take control

The Government committed to the vote next week, at least in part, to buy off MPs. Some of the Conservative backbenchers (and possibly some frontbenchers) contemplating voting against the Government last week in order to ‘stop no deal’ (or more accurately, delay it), were supposedly persuaded that there would be another chance to make their point. They just needed to give the Government a little more time.

After next week, however, just six of the 104 weeks in the Article 50 window will be left. Time is running out and MPs may feel next week is the time to make their move. There could be more attempts by backbenchers to wrestle control of Parliamentary time from the executive or the focus could turn, like it did with the Brady amendment, to trying to influence the Government’s position. So far MPs have largely avoided big votes on potential alternative options, but next week could be the week that changes – or the point at which MPs ask for a series of indicative votes. It looks almost certain that there will be amendments relating to the extension of Article 50 (which could of course be part of the Prime Minister's plan anyway).

Regardless of what happens next week, the pressure for more time is likely to grow. In November, the UK Government told EU leaders it needed an extraordinary European Council before the end of the month, because without it there simply wouldn’t be enough time to ratify the deal. With less than 60 days now remaining, it’s not clear there is even a deal to be ratified. 

Comments

A likely outcome will be an extension to the Article 50 deadline made by the PM, with the European Council agreeing.

The length of any extension will be key, if it goes past the first week of June the UK will have to hold European Parliamentary elections in the last week of May, opening the door for a new pro-Brexit party and UKIP to gain a majority of UK MEP seats. Such a possibility would be an anathema to both Labour and Conservatives alike. Therefore a short extension of less than nine weeks looks very possible.

Whether a deal can be agreed even with extra time is a mute point, what seems clear is that a majority of MPs would like to prevent Brexit and that is what they will try to do.

Couldn't UK request that we forfeit our right to elections & representation on basis that we are leaving ? That would get round a lot of the predicted difficulties.

I can't see how an extension to A50 can be agreed if at the end of March there is no more prospect of an agreement than there is now.

Extension needs to be for a substantive reason - e.g. general election or people's vote. We could also beg for an extension / request clock is stopped to put through UK legislation.

Lord Kerr and a select Parliamentary group came up last year with a "roadmap to a people's vote" https://d3n8a8pro7vhmx.cloudfront.net/in/pages/15721/attachments/origina...

One of the options for Parliament it suggested was: "Third, if the Government’s motion on the deal has passed, the Government will have to legislate for its implementation through an Act of Parliament. This European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Bill would be subject to amendments throughout its passage through Parliament, meaning an amendment could be passed that would make the Bill conditional on approval of a People’s Vote."

Does the Institute think it worth pushing for this option? It could use as a precedent the provision added to the Scotland Act 1978 which required 40% of the electorate to support the devolution arrangements set out in the Act for for the Act and those arrangements to come into force - which support was not forthcoming.

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