After MPs failed to find a majority for any alternative Brexit proposals on Monday evening we are left at another impasse. Last week MPs voted against revoking Article 50 – while also voting against all other Brexit options on the table. This week much the same happened. Theresa May’s deal has now been defeated in parliament three times, and it is unclear whether she will be able to bring it back to the House again even if she wanted to.
So, MPs have ruled out every possible Brexit option while, so far, also ruling out no Brexit at all. In normal times this would be completely absurd – but as this parliament has shown time and time again, an abject failure to function as it should is not only well within the scope of their abilities (or lack of), but something which is entirely in tune with their track record.
It feels largely fruitless to try and read the tea leaves on what will/should/could/might happen next. But while every possibility looks unlikely, something has to happen in the end.
A quick recap…
After two rounds of indicative votes (introduced by Tory MP Oliver Letwin) MPs failed to reach a consensus on alternatives to May’s deal. That includes a customs union, a Norway-style Brexit, a confirmatory referendum on a Brexit deal, no deal exit and revoking Article 50.
A customs union came very close to reaching a majority yesterday evening, losing by just 3 votes. There’s a lot of “if only” hypotheticals flying around – if only the independent group voted for it, if only the Lib Dems voted for it, if only the SNP didn’t abstain – seemingly rooted in a belief that achieving a simple majority would be sufficient to achieve a genuine workable alternative to May’s deal. But, the customs union only received 273 votes. For any proposal to have a viable chance it would need a stable majority of 320 votes. Otherwise, in a simple one question vote in parliament, it is unlikely it would actually pass. While the customs union did come close, it didn’t come nearly close enough.
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Meanwhile, May’s deal failed again last Friday. The losses have decreased fairly dramatically each time she’s presented the deal to parliament. But the decreasing number of no votes are largely irrelevant when all together they still total a no vote. In lieu of anything dramatic changing, the deal will fail for the fourth time, if she can even get it back to the House again. The latter problem depends on the Speaker John Bercow, who’s capriciousness is matched only by the DUP’s intransigence.
This leaves us in a bit of a pickle. Britain is set to leave the EU on 12th April with no deal if something doesn’t budge. The House doesn’t want a no deal Brexit. But the House also can’t seem to agree on how to stop it.
If this makes you want to scream, rest assured you are not alone. When asked about May bring her deal back to parliament last week, one cabinet member allegedly told BBC Newsnight Political Editor Nick Watt “f*** knows, I am past caring. It is like the living dead in here.”
What are the next steps for May?
May was largely absent from yesterday’s proceedings. She has been in cabinet for the best part of today – handling a split. The task for ministers is to try and find out where to go next. The cabinet is divided, just as the House of Commons.
At least a third of the cabinet wants to push May to go for a no deal Brexit on 12th April. Another third of remain-inclined MPs are pushing for the softest Brexit possible in the form of a customs union. Then there are the May-deal-die-hards, who are at this stage probably best off focusing their energy elsewhere.
The options on the table for now (health warning: this could be entirely different within the space of a few hours) are seeking a long extension to Article 50, something which May has said she will not tolerate as Prime Minister; going for a no deal exit on 12th April; holding a run off vote between her deal and a customs union solution; seeking a majority for her deal by tacking on a confirmatory public referendum; holding a general election to break the stalemate; putting her deal back to parliament again and praying to the gods that something miraculous happens.
There are myriad problems with all the suggestions above, naturally. Bercow may very well not allow May to bring her deal back as is. The EU might not grant the UK a long extension. A long extension would require the UK’s participation in the upcoming MEP elections – something no one wants. The Conservative party does not want to fight a general election, fearing a wipeout. Tacking on a referendum re-run to her deal contingent on its passing could actually eliminate a huge amount of its already stretched support base.
May has already tried the nuclear option: back my deal and I’ll resign. Even the promise of a resignation of the least popular Prime Minister conceivable wasn’t enough to corral a majority for the deal. She will likely resign whether her deal passes or not – triggering a leadership contest to be won by either a die-hard Brexiteer or a remainer-customs-union-endorser. When and how that contest will be fought is anyone’s guess, however.
What is the EU saying?
The EU’s chief Brexit negotiator Michael Barnier said today that a no-deal Brexit is now “very likely.”
“As things stand, the option of no-deal is very likely, I have to be very sincere with you.”
Barnier added that if the UK seeks a long extension – something the EU 27 leaders will decide upon next Wednesday – the government will have to explain what exactly it intends to do with the time. An extension with no plan is simply not an option. And no one is under any illusion that the government has a plan.
So what now?
At same time there is seemingly a litany of options facing May, and none at all. Every alternative plan contains some kind of insurmountable obstacle – and all are contingent on the good will and cooperation of the EU 27. When the UK is driven to the edge of a no deal exit next week it is very possible that parliament capitulates out of fear and finds a consensus for something – but it hasn’t happened yet. And despite the Commons largely wanting to avoid a no deal exit, their inability or unwillingness to compromise on an alternative might just see it happen by more or less accident. It is currently (and has been since day one) the legal default.
Letwin and Cooper are now pushing a bill to create legislation ruling out no-deal. It will be discussed tomorrow, although it is unclear whether there is time for it to be completed. The bill seems to be full of holes, as even Remain lawyers are pointing out.
The EU and the UK are drifting towards a no deal scenario, with the risk that the EU offers an extension, but with tough conditions that well over half of Tory MPs cannot support leading to the plug being pulled on this dead government just as no deal happens.
It could all get even more chaotic yet.