Ahead of this evening’s Parliamentary vote, Professor de Ruyter, Director of the Centre for Brexit Studies, asks what a Government win would mean for Brexit and the strength of the Government.
Today promises to be a high day of drama (not that we haven’t had enough of that so far) in Parliament, as MPs vote on the Agreement to exit the EU that has been negotiated by the Government. If May wins the vote, then Brexit goes ahead on the terms outlined in the withdrawal agreement put in place.
To recap, according to the withdrawal agreement on offer, the transition period (of status quo ante applying) expires on December 31st 2020, (although both parties could seek to “extend” the transition period – all the way to the year “20XX”! – but more likely for a couple of years) so as to prevent the erection of new customs barriers between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK. The NI backstop arrangement could only be terminated through “joint agreement” on a “joint committee”.
Uncertainty remains though as we will then go through the whole exercise of negotiating a new economic relationship, which could take years.
In the unlikely event that May wins the vote, this negotiation period will be a torrid exercise, in which UK negotiators will be under extreme pressure to achieve a new agreement. Bearing in mind that the EU-Canada agreement took some eight years to negotiate, it is unlikely that we will have this ironed out by the end of December 2020.
The EU has already demonstrated its strong bargaining position in terms of the draft withdrawal agreement negotiated. If anything, a transition period would place enormous pressure on UK negotiators in a situation where the EU largely holds all the cards.
If, as expected, May loses the vote today, a number of things could happen. She could try to seek further assurances and put to another vote in Parliament, which she is required within three days to do thanks to the amendment passed that was put forward by Dominic Grieve. However, given that the EU have ruled out reopening negotiations on the Withdrawal Agreement, any further assurances would only be around the “intent” to avoid a backstop for Northern Ireland ever having to come into effect.
I still therefore expect May to lose any parliamentary vote on the withdrawal agreement. Labour are committed to trying to force an election and thus are extremely likely to mount a No Confidence vote in the Government. However I don’t see the DUP or Tory Brexiteers voting to bring down the Government no matter what.
This then leaves us in a situation whereby there is clearly no majority in Parliament for “no deal”, but equally so, no majority for any other type of arrangement (e.g., a “Norway plus” option put forward by tory MP Nick Boles).
The most plausible outcome seems to be that of returning the decision to “the People” in the form of another referendum. Of course, it is one thing for Parliament to vote for another referendum, but Government as the Executive would have to negotiate with the EU in order to allow the time for this to happen. That is, that the UK Government would have to ask the EU for an extension to the Article 50 exit period.
Given that a referendum would take months to organise, such an extension – if granted (likely to be) would take us beyond the May 2019 European Parliament elections. We would then be in the somewhat absurd situation of presumably new MEPs – as we would still be in the EU – but intending to leave?
And of course, there is no guarantee that such a vote would deliver a decisive outcome. Indeed current polls suggest very little movement in public opinion since 2016. A YouGov poll taken on the 8th January suggests that 46 per cent of respondents think we should leave the EU and get on with Brexit (and of these about half think we should leave the EU with no deal). A subsequent vote to Remain by a margin of 52-48 per cent would be as divisive as the original referendum proved to be.
Of course, time is now the enemy of a withdrawal agreement being reached with the EU and the clock is ticking (unless you prefer a no-deal scenario). Theresa May has shown determination to take the vote right down to the wire in imposing her Deal on Parliament. We therefore face the prospect that the UK could exit the EU with no deal, as there would not be time for the UK Government to effect any alternative (unless the Government revokes Article 50 before 11pm on March 29th).
No Deal or No Brexit then? You decide.