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14 March 2019

Edelman Brexit Bulletin: Brexit on hold, but for how long?

Brexit, Government Affairs

Nearly two years ago huge numbers of MPs – whether they supported remain or leave – voted to enact the will of the majority by triggering Article 50, the legal mechanism by which the UK leaves the EU. 

That legislative instrument enshrined in law that we would leave the EU at 11pm on March 29th 2019, less than 350 hours from now.

Well not anymore! At just after 6pm this evening our elected representatives voted by 412 to 202 to halt that process, at least until June 30th and possibly for a lot longer. 

Brexiteers in the House and many leave voters across the country will see it as a betrayal. 

Remainers will see it as a step toward reversing their hated Brexit. 

And everyone else will see it as a case of either ‘an inevitable compromise in pursuit of our eventual departure’ or ‘we’d rather we weren’t leaving but as we are let’s get it right.’

Delay will require a change in the law. Not a problem. But it will also require the unanimous consent of the remaining EU27. Potentially a bigger problem. 

Before that Mrs May will try one final time to push through her deal. The third meaningful vote on withdrawal will happen next week. She will argue to her rebellious Brexiteers that it’s her deal or a long delay. What she really means is “if you vote my deal down you may never even get your Brexit.”

If she wins – big if – we extend by a matter of weeks and leave before June 30th, with a 21 -month transition period ahead of us. If she loses then that membership extension could be a very long one.  

Here’s what happened, why it matters and what comes next? 

What has happened? 

  • It is no longer Government policy to leave the EU on 29 March, as MPs voted by 412 votes to 202 to request the EU to extend the Article 50 process. If the Brexit deal is passed at the third time of asking next week, the UK will request a delay until 30 June in order to implement the necessary legislation. If the deal is rejected again, the UK will request a longer delay to work out what to do next.
  • In order to avoid another humiliating defeat, the Government conceded a free vote on the extension. Prime Minister Theresa May voted in favour, but eight Cabinet members voted against, including Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay, Chief Secretary Liz Truss and International Trade Secretary Liam Fox.   
  • MPs narrowly rejected an amendment from Brexit Committee Chair Hilary Benn by 312 votes to 314 which would have seen MPs take control of the Parliamentary agenda to hold a series of indicative votes on alternative Brexit plans next Wednesday. A similar amendment tabled on 29 January was defeated by a margin of 20 votes, suggesting MPs are slowly moving towards this option.
  • MPs also rejected an amendment from the Independent Group’s Sarah Wollaston calling for a second referendum by 334 votes to 85. The official People’s Vote Campaign had urged MPs not to back this amendment, arguing it was premature. Most backers of a second referendum abstained, with Labour also having whipped their MPs to abstain. Despite this, a clear majority of all MPs rejected the idea of a second referendum, including 17 Labour MPs. 

What does it mean? 

  • As a result of the vote, an extension now appears highly likely providing EU leaders approve the request at next week’s European Council summit on 21-22 March.
  • Although the extension passed comfortably, 188 Conservative MPs will have voted against – 60% of the Parliamentary Party – demonstrating the strength of feeling within the wider party that Brexit should be delivered without delay, even at the risk of a supposedly chaotic no deal. While some of the Tory MPs voting against will privately have supported an extension, the views of party members and the wider Conservative electorate meant many felt obliged to oppose it.
  • While Brexiteers will be disappointed not to be leaving on 29 March as previously promised, today was also a bad day for supporters of a second referendum. Their campaign was divided, with the official People’s Vote campaign disowning an amendment tabled by some of its strongest Parliamentary backers. Although many supporters abstained, at this point in time it is clear there is no Parliamentary majority in favour of a second referendum, with too many MPs not wanting to be seen to be rejecting the verdict voters delivered in 2016. This could yet change if a referendum is seen as the only way out of a prolonged impasse, but it remains an unlikely scenario.
  • The very narrow defeat of the Benn amendment is significant as it gives Mrs May another chance to try to get her deal through Parliament before a cross-party coalition seizes control of the process, most likely putting the UK on track for an even softer Brexit (such as membership of the European Economic Area and a Customs Union). However, it bolsters the argument of Government loyalists, who will be able to say to the anti-deal Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party and Tory Brexiteers, that if the deal is voted down again, Parliament will take the next opportunity to formally take control. This means the prospects of Mrs May’s Brexit deal passing have improved, but based on last night’s drama 149 votes is still a large deficit to overcome.

What happens next? 

  • Mrs May is widely expected to bring her Brexit deal back before MPs for a third time next week. If MPs back it, she will request a Brexit delay until 30 June in order to pass the necessary legislation in the form of the EU Withdrawal Agreement Bill.
  • However, if MPs reject her deal again then she will be forced to seek a longer extension – potentially up to 12 months – which would entail the UK taking part in European Elections on 23 May.
  • To request an extension the Government must write to the EU before 21 March to formally submit the request and explain why they are seeking an extension. To meet approval, it must receive the unanimous consent of European leaders, and so the matter of delaying Brexit day will come to dominate next week’s European Council Summit. 
  • Current UK legislation specifies that the UK will leave the EU on 29 March. Upon securing the EU’s agreement, the Government will have to put a Statutory Instrument before both the House of Commons and Lords to amend that legislation to formally change the Brexit date. 
  • David Lidington – Mrs May’s effective deputy who opened today’s debate on behalf of the Prime Minister – suggested to MPs that if the deal is rejected a third time next week and a longer Article 50 extension is requested, the Government could offer MPs its own version of indicative votes over the course of two weeks in April. That may just start to show us where a majority of MPs are on a solution to the most divisive political issue this country has faced in modern times.

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