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We're in Brexit limbo - so what could possibly happen next?

Theresa May has turned to European leaders today to try to find something that will make the Brexit deal more palatable.
Dec 11th 2018, 11:47 AM 16,173 16

Netherlands EU Brexit Source: Peter Dejong

AFTER THE UK parliament’s crucial vote on the Brexit deal was postponed, what’s next on the pathway to the UK’s exit from the EU?

Prime Minister Theresa May, after hearing repeated concerns from her Cabinet colleagues and fellow MPs on the Brexit deal before it reached the floor of the House of Commons, has returned to the doorsteps of EU leaders in the hope that they can add an assurance or a tweak to the deal that will make it more palatable for MPs back home.

Brexiteers, including the DUP leadership, have called for the backstop to be removed from the deal completely, as there are fears that it would hamper UK efforts to strike trade deals around the world.

But the EU, and the Irish government, have repeatedly said that there is no deal without a backstop provision. Further than that, they said that the current Brexit deal is not up for renegotiation.

So where does all that leave us?

On the backstop

DUP conference 2018 Deputy Leader Nigel Dodds and Party leader Arlene Foster during the DUP annual conference. Source: Michael Cooper

As impossible as it may seem, there could be some compromise on the backstop. 

The original plan was that the backstop would be Northern Ireland specific, but due to fears that this would anger the DUP and other unionists, the UK government interpreted it to mean UK-wide.

This would mean that after the transition period ends in December 2020, or beyond that if it’s extended, if there isn’t a deal that sufficiently ensures there will be no border on the island of Ireland, the backstop would kick in.

This would mean that the UK would follow whatever EU rules and regulations necessary that would ensure there’s no need for customs checks on the island of Ireland.

Some MPs are floating the idea that if an addendum was made to the deal to allow a House of Commons vote on whether they would stay within the backstop each year. 

It’s possible that they could also reduce the backstop back to its Northern Ireland specific shape, meaning that in a worst-case scenario, Great Britain would be free to strike new trade deals around the world, and Northern Ireland would remain somewhat aligned to the EU.

The EU and Ireland have repeatedly emphasised that the backstop can neither be time-limited or include a clause where the UK can unilaterally withdraw from the backstop. That’s because of the political uncertainty of Brexit – no matter what types of trade deals the UK wants, or whether there’s a new Prime Minister or new party in power, there will still be a guarantee of no hard border on the island of Ireland.

Both sides have also repeatedly said that they don’t want to have to use the backstop, it should be added.

On the House of Commons vote

BRITAIN-LONDON-BREXIT VOTE-PUTTING OFF-PROTEST A protester demonstrates outside the Houses of Parliament in London. Source: Xinhua News Agency/PA Images

In short, we don’t know when the House of Commons vote will be now.

The UK parliament retires for a Christmas recess on 21 December. It’s difficult to see whether there would be any substantial changes to the mood of the House of Commons or the Brexit Withdrawal deal between then and now that would result in it being approved by 320 MPs.

The deadline by which the House of Commons must pass the deal or vote on it to ensure the UK leaves the EU on 29 March next year is 29 January.

It’s important to remember that the current Brexit Withdrawal Agreement has been rubber stamped by the EU and UK negotiating teams; the EU Council, which encompasses all 27 EU leaders; and the UK Cabinet (somehow).

It’s also been reviewed by the UK’s Attorney General; although we are in uncharted territory here, you’d imagine all that would have to happen again if the deal was renegotiated, even slightly.

It’s also possible, after the European Court of Justice’s ruling yesterday, that the UK government could revoke Article 50 altogether, reversing the Brexit process. This wouldn’t do them any favours if there were to be a general election, however.

On Theresa May’s leadership

It’s difficult to see how Theresa May survives past January as British Prime Minister.

One of the reasons why it’s thought Theresa May pulled the vote is if she were to lose by a large majority (100 votes or so), then Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn would have submitted a vote of no confidence in her as leader.

Already, members of the Scottish National Party and the Liberal Democrats have written to Corbyn pushing him to table a motion of no confidence in Theresa May.

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But despite postponing the vote, it’s difficult to see how any Brexit deal can be approved by a majority of MPs, as there is a broad spectrum of views on what the Brexit deal should be.

So if there is a vote, no matter when it’s held, it looks as though the House will reject the Brexit deal; and if May doesn’t hold a House of Commons vote before 29 January, she will also face ousting attempts.

It’s important to remember too, however, that attempts to kick May out of 10 Downing Street have repeatedly failed; time before the Brexit vote will be a crucial factor in whether May stays in office.

Suggested for the role of Prime Minister (in order of likelihood) are Home Secretary Sajid Javid, Secretary of State for Work and Pensions Amber Rudd, and former Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson.

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Gráinne Ní Aodha


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