Brexit: what could happen next

With 12 days to go, where does the UK stand following the confusing blizzard of Brexit votes in parliament last week?

It was a momentous week in the Commons as Theresa May’s Brexit deal was heavily defeated for a second time on Tuesday by 149 votes. The fresh humiliation for the prime minister triggered a series of other motions and amendments, as MPs tried to agree what to do next. After votes on the PM’s deal, on no deal, on extending our membership of the EU, on a second referendum, and on plans to let parliament take control of Brexit, where are we now – with 12 days to go before we are supposed to leave the EU?

1 Is May’s deal now dead?

No. It may have suffered two crushing defeats at the hands of MPs (the first was by a margin of 230 in January) but the prime minister refuses to give up on it. She will have another go at forcing it through parliament on Tuesday after more talks this weekend and Monday with the 10 DUP MPs and the Eurosceptics in her own party. Even if she fails a third time, she could try for fourth time lucky in the days immediately before the UK is due to leave on 29 March.

2 Has a no-deal Brexit been ruled out?

It is now much less likely, but it could still happen. Confusingly, MPs voted to rule out a no-deal Brexit on Wednesday by 321 votes to 278, but this was merely advisory and not a binding vote. It was MPs saying what they did not want to happen – not what they could stop happening. To avoid no-deal on 29 March, we either have to agree a deal before then, or agree with the EU the terms for an extension to our membership, or both. If parliament cannot agree a deal, and the EU refuses to permit an extension beyond 29 March on terms acceptable to the government and parliament, we will crash out. Even if we get an extension, no-deal could happen later if we fail to agree what we want by the revised date for leaving.

3 Will Brexit definitely be delayed?

Not definitely but probably. Parliament voted to request an extension to article 50 of at least three months on Thursday evening by 413 votes to 211. But again this was not binding. To delay Brexit, the 27 EU member states have to agree unanimously to allow us do so, as well as how long the delay should be for and for what purpose. Then changes would have to be made to the UK’s EU withdrawal bill, which set 29 March as Brexit day. If May’s deal passes, she has said she will ask the EU for a short extension to 30 June to give enough time to pass lots of Brexit related legislation. But if her deal is rejected, May says the EU is likely to insist that any delay be far longer – perhaps up to two years – so the UK can decide what relationship it wants with the EU once and for all. Such a long delay will be difficult for MPs and people in the country who voted Leave to accept.

Emmanuel Macron talks tough in public, but his officials are more flexible regarding an extension to Article 50.
Emmanuel Macron talks tough in public, but his officials are more flexible regarding an extension to Article 50. Photograph: Geert Vanden Wijngaert/AP

4 Could any member state veto an extension?

In theory, any EU member state could block extra time for the UK’s membership. But in practice this is unlikely. Although Italy, Poland and Hungary have suggested they could cut up rough about an extension, they all have much to lose from a no-deal Brexit. French president Emmanuel Macron has also talked tough about not pandering to British demands but French officials in Brussels have sounded more flexible, resisting attempts by the commission to put too many conditions on a Brexit extension. The big unknown in all this, however, is that EU leaders have never discussed such a question before - so there no precedent to go on.

5 Could there still be a second referendum?

Yes, although MPs rejected an amendment calling for one on Thursday, by 334 to 85. That sounds like a thumping rejection. But in Thursday’s vote, Labour whipped its MPs to abstain, rather than vote for it, and said it was waiting to throw its full backing behind a second referendum until another day. That day, it seems, will be on Tuesday when senior party figures say Labour will whip its MPs to vote for an amendment from MPs Peter Kyle and Phil Wilson. Under their plan MPs would allow May’s Brexit deal to pass - but only on condition that a “confirmatory” referendum be held, with the alternative on the ballot paper being Remain. If Labour really back another public vote after months of fudging the issue, and enough Tories back it in order to avoid the disaster of no deal, or a long delay, it may have a chance.

6 Will MPs now look at Brexit options beyond May’s deal?

They are already doing so privately. Cross-party groups of MPs are pushing different ideas including that of a Norway-style model of single market membership and close customs arrangements with the EU. Labour also says it is working with MPs from other parties on plans for a permanent customs union. But May says her deal is the only one on offer and is determined that MPs focus on it until 29 March. An amendment that would have allowed parliament to hold “indicative votes” on other options in the coming days was defeated by just 314-312 on Thursday. If other Brexit options are to come to the fore and be debated in detail, this will now almost certainly only be once May’s deal has been voted down again.

7 Could we take part in EU elections in May?

If May gets her deal through and the EU agrees to an extension only until 30 June, the answer is no. However if her deal is not agreed – yet MPs still want to avoiding crashing out without a deal – the EU is likely to insist on a longer delay of 21 months or more, and could well require the UK to take part. But politically it would be dangerous for both the UK and EU. The prospect of European elections taking place three years after the referendum delivered a Leave vote would enrage Leavers here, and the EU would fear the election of a batch of anti-EU MEPs to the Strasbourg/Brussels assembly. Special arrangements are likely to be found to avoid forcing elections on the UK, perhaps by allowing our current UK MEPs to carry on until we leave (assuming, one day, we do).

8 Can May survive as prime minister?

Incredibly, the answer is yes, though probably not for that long. Under Tory rules she cannot be formally challenged for the leadership until December, having seen off a coup attempt late last year. Certainly she is gravely weakened. She has been defeated twice on her Brexit deal by huge margins. Cabinet discipline has disintegrated. But if she pulls it off at the third or fourth time of asking, it will have been an incredible high-wire act. Credit will be given for extraordinary strength and resilience and some authority will be restored. If she fails to deliver Brexit, however, her time will almost certainly be up.

9 Could we just cancel Brexit by revoking Article 50?

In theory yes, but politically it is extremely unlikely. The UK can revoke at any point before it leaves, even during an extension. The former Tory chancellor Kenneth Clarke, who voted against triggering Article 50 in the first place, has said we could revoke Article 50 now to get out of the current mess, then possibly reinvoke at a later date, when we have decided what we actually want. But he is in a very small minority. Revocations would also require MPs voting to reverse legislation they passed by a large majority early in 2017. Even Labour MPs voted by three to one to trigger article 50.

Additional reporting by Jennifer Rankin in Brussels.


Toby Helm

The GuardianTramp

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