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'She's in office, but not in power': What could happen if Theresa May's Brexit deal fails?

An extension to Article 50, a change of leadership, a no-deal Brexit… or another referendum? Here’s what could happen.

Shinzo Abe visit to UK Theresa May walks with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe during his visit to the UK. Source: PA Wire/PA Images

THIS EVENING, MPS will gather in the House of Commons chamber to vote on whether to approve the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement.

British Prime Minister Theresa May has to get at least 320 votes in order for her deal to pass – if she doesn’t get this, she has three or four main options available to her.

The first is to extend Article 50: at the moment there’s a legal obligation to leave the European Union by the 29 March 2019. The EU is reported to be reluctant to extend the timeline without a reasonable expectation that something will come of that extension.

There’s also another awkward milestone: the European Parliament elections in May. If the UK hasn’t left by this date, it might have to elect MEPs to the EU on a temporary basis, something both sides want to avoid.

Another option is a general election or a Tory leadership challenge. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has said he would table a motion of no confidence in the government if May’s Brexit deal fails to pass through the House of Commons.

If Labour were to come to power, Corbyn has said previously that he would call a second referendum if it’s what his party wants – this is despite Corbyn’s own Eurosceptic views – but has been inconsistent when questioned on this.

If there is a general election, this would mean the UK would have to ask the European Union for an extension to Article 50: it’s not clear if the leaders of the 27 EU member states would be happy to grant it on this basis, as it could lead to more uncertainty.

It’s not certain that the EU would grant an extension for a second referendum either (if one is held and the outcome is ‘Leave’, would negotiations begin again?)

A no-deal Brexit is the other option – although no one on either side want this, it could still happen though a lack of agreement from the House of Commons on what MPs want.

If the deal does fail, Theresa May won’t have much time to choose one of these options either – an amendment voted for earlier this week means that she will have just three days to come back to the House of Commons with a new plan.

Britain Brexit Source: Frank Augstein

So what’s the most likely option?

Feargal Cochrane – a Professor of International Conflict Analysis in the School of Politics and International Relations at the University of Kent – reckons there will be an extension.

“The EU are talking about July at the latest for [an extension] and they have been making arrangements on that basis. They are apparently already planning for an extension, and discussing it among themselves, which seems a little more organised than the UK side with both main parties publicly denying they want it.”

He says that it’s important to note that the UK can only request an extension – they do not have a right to it without agreement from the other 27 member states. He says that although it’s likely it will be granted, it’s possible that there will be conditions to it. 

“The fact that there is an assumption about extension by sections of the UK media speaks to the wider malaise – namely lack of understanding of where the UK stands in relation to its EU counterparts.”

Irishman Ronan McCrea, Professor of Constitutional and European Law at University College London, says that the European Council is growing tired of discussing Brexit, and would need to see evidence of progression before agreeing to giving the UK more time to get their house in order.

“An extension needs the unanimous consent of the 27 states. Many states are not that interested in Brexit and resent the time and energy it is taking up.”

If there was evidence that the deal would pass through the House if they were given more time, or that they needed more time to hold a second referendum, then the likelihood of 27 member states agreeing to an extension is high. But the UK is still uncertain.

“There is, as yet, no sign of a British position that has majority support emerging.

As things stand, the House of Commons is hopelessly divided into supporters of a range of options none of which is even close to majority support.
If the British seek an extension on the basis that they just can’t make up their minds, they are unlikely to get it. 

Will Theresa May resign?

Boris Johnson in Dublin Former UK foreign secretary Boris Johnson speaking in Dublin. Source: PA Wire/PA Images

“I doubt that she will resign,” Cochrane says. “She has had plenty of opportunity over recent years given her hapless performance over Brexit and other issues but I doubt that she will.”

She is more likely to plod on unless her party comes and tells her the game is up – but they don’t want an election and none of them wants to carry the can for Brexit – so she is a prisoner of the office at the moment. She’s in office, but not in power. 

He said that statements by the Prime Minister to warn MPs that ‘no Brexit’ is more likely than ‘no deal’ could be a “damage limitation strategy so she keeps defeat down under 100 votes”.

Professor McCrea says it will be hard to win over MPs, given that they are “ideologically-driven”.

“The Withdrawal Agreement places significant limits on how a hard Brexit can ultimately be, so it’s unattractive to Brexiteer MPs.

In addition, many of these MPs are ideologically very driven so not usually attracted to compromise.
However, if May’s deal fails and Jeremy Corbyn drops his opposition to a second referendum, then Brexiters risk Brexit being abandoned altogether, so some MPs may be willing, in those circumstances to back May in a second vote.

Before MPs vote on her Brexit deal, there will be a long list of amendments that will also need to be voted on – when this process ends depends on how many amendments are passed, and if they have an impact on other amendments that are due to be voted on.

Last week, MPs voted to reduce the time that Theresa May has to produce her plan B from 21 days to just three days.

The vote on Theresa May’s Brexit Withdrawal Agreement will be held at 7pm tonight.

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