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Monday 25 September 2023 Dublin: 14°C
House of Commons/PA Images Prime Minister Theresa May
# meaningful vote
Explainer: What on earth is going to happen in Westminster next week?
There could be three crucial votes in the House of Commons from Tuesday onwards, with Brexit only a few weeks away.

PRIME MINISTER THERESA May’s much-maligned withdrawal agreement, delaying Brexit or crashing out without a deal?

Yet again, this week will see the spotlight squarely on Westminster with MPs set to determine the course of the UK’s future with a series of crucial votes on Brexit.

There’s less than three weeks to go until the UK is due to leave the EU on 29 March, so the stakes couldn’t be higher.

There are a number of different ways it could go, so here’s the possible paths with the Brexit endgame set to get under way.

Step One – The meaningful vote

So here we go again.

After lengthy, prolonged negotiations Theresa May’s government secured a withdrawal agreement with the EU. This deal contains the provisions for the Irish backstop – the measure that would avoid a hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland.

May’s withdrawal agreement has proven unpalatable for the DUP, hardline Conservatives and the opposition parties.

She delayed a vote on this deal in December when it became clear she wouldn’t have the votes to pass it in the House of Commons. Nothing in the agreement changed, and it was roundly defeated in a vote in January.

Despite numerous talks with the EU since then, little has changed in the withdrawal agreement with the Irish government and Brussels refusing to back down on the backstop.

Nevertheless, MPs will vote again on Theresa May’s withdrawal agreement on Tuesday 12 March.

Her deal was crushed in the January vote by a majority of 230.

Here are the scenarios for the meaningful vote.

  • Theresa May wins.

Somehow, someway she manages to get the vote through parliament despite the previous thumping defeat. If this happens, then the UK will have finally ratified the withdrawal agreement with the EU.

Short of the UK holding a second referendum and opting to stay in the EU, it’s the best result for Ireland as it prevents a hard border with Northern Ireland and the economy take the hit that is feared would happen if there was a no-deal Brexit. 

If May somehow wins, the subsequent votes that are outlined below will not take place

  • Theresa May loses

As expected, May loses the vote.

If it’s by a small margin, it could convince the Conservative leader to try to entice opposition Labour MPs with further concessions to try twist the numbers back on her side.

If the vote is lost by a significant margin, then that is the death knell for the prime minister’s withdrawal agreement. 

And, if it’s lost by a sizeable margin, MPs will be voting again the next day.

Step Two – Deal or no deal?

If May loses the meaningful vote, then MPs will get the chance to vote on whether or not they’d like to leave the EU without an agreement on Wednesday 13 March. 

A no deal would be the worst case scenario for Ireland, paving the way for the return of a hard border and hitting the Irish economy hard and fast.

It is the favoured option of the likes of the European Research Group headed by Jacob Rees-Mogg which believes a no deal wouldn’t be bad for the UK. 

However, the appetite for a no-deal Brexit is limited to only a small number of MPs. Indications so far are that this vote will certainly not pass.

Here are the scenarios for the vote on a no-deal Brexit.

  • MPs vote for a no deal

This is unlikely to happen. But if it does, it provides a mandate from the House of Commons for the UK to crash out of the EU without a deal.

It’s likely further attempts could be made to prevent this from happening following the vote, but how that would work remains to be seen. 

  • MPs vote against a no deal

By now we’re running out of options. If this option is chosen – as expected – then MPs will have rejected the deal on the table, and also leaving without a deal.

Given these choices, they will be asked to vote again the following the day on the last remaining option at this time.

Step Three – Extending Article 50

Article 50 was the mechanism through which the UK triggered its withdrawal from the EU. It set a time limit of 29 March to negotiate all the necessary arrangements with the EU before it left.

If we reach this vote on Thursday 14 March, it will mean that these arrangements have not been agreed upon.

By then, it will be just over two weeks until the UK is due to leave the EU.

Theresa May has said that MPs will be given the chance to vote on extending Article 50 by a number of months in a bid for more time to break the impasse.

Brexiteers will oppose any delay but if it makes it this far, it will have become apparent that there no one can agree on any deal passing. 

This one is difficult to predict, although it appears likely that there would be enough numbers in the Commons to pass this one. 

Here are the scenarios in this one.

  • Voting not to extend Article 50

This would be truly farcical. It would mean that, in the space of three days, parliament voted a) against the only deal on the table, b) not to leave without a deal on 29 March and c) against extending this 29 March deadline. 

  • Voting to extend Article 50

At the very least, this would buy May and the UK some time. What she does with that time, however, is unclear. After lengthy talks, the EU and the Irish government has refused to back down.

Extending Article 50 is unlikely to change that but it could allow May more time to make concessions to sway either the Brexiteers in her own party and the DUP, or those on the opposition benches.

If it gets to this point, then it will be a case of the UK kicking the can down the road yet again. 

May will be left with a more few options in this scenario – she could call a general election, she could step down as leader and prime minister. If she does step down it could also be a case of jumping before she’s pushed, as the Brexiteers furious at any delays to Brexit may try to oust her.

If Article 50 is extended, then it will create more uncertainty as the UK will remain in the EU for a further period without a way forward in sight.

Whatever happens, we’re set for another week of high drama in Westminster.

It may not be possible to accurately predict exactly what will happen, but we are sure to get a lot of this:

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