The UK’s Brexit policy is up in the air tonight after MPs overwhelmingly rejected Theresa May’s deal for a second time. Somewhat incredibly, all outcomes now remain possible with just 17 days to go until the country is scheduled to leave the EU. A series of crunch votes will now follow over the coming days in an attempt to find a path through.
What has happened?
MPs have voted by 391 to 242 to reject Theresa May’s updated Brexit deal – a majority of 149 – despite her having secured “legal changes” to her original agreement.
This is less than the historic 230-vote defeat the PM suffered on her original deal in January. Several high-profile Tory Brexiteers including former Brexit Secretary David Davis switched their votes, but tonight still represents a crushing defeat for Mrs May
It came after Attorney General Geoffrey Cox – a member of the PM’s Cabinet but as Attorney General an ‘independent’ arbiter on legal matters – had told MPs the legal risk of being stuck in the Northern Ireland backstop “remains unchanged” in the event of talks between the UK and EU breaking down. Mrs May had hoped the legal changes secured in last night’s late dash to Strasbourg would be enough. In the event the Attorney General’s advice paved the way for hardline Brexiteers and the Government’s DUP partners to say they couldn’t back the new deal.
In response, the Prime Minister confirmed she would fulfil a previous pledge to give MPs a vote on whether to pursue a no-deal Brexit tomorrow – and that Conservative MPs will be given a free vote. If that is approved, it will become Government policy. If rejected, MPs will hold a vote on Thursday on whether to extend Article 50 and delay Britain’s exit from the European Union.
Why does it matter?
It’s now under 400 hours until we are due by law to leave the EU and yet the UK still does not know where it is headed – an orderly exit, a no-deal Brexit, an extension of membership for an unknown period of time, or no Brexit at all. It truly is a political crisis.
Theresa May had urged MPs to back her deal to provide certainty for the country and deliver an orderly exit from the European Union. That they failed to do so is a further blow to her authority – reflected in her offering a free vote tomorrow on no deal to maintain party unity – although the fact she managed to reduce the scale of the defeat will encourage some around her to think a “one more heave” strategy could get the deal over the line.
The UK now faces one of the most dramatic phases in its political history, with crunch votes over the coming days which will determine the country’s future.
The European Union has been clear that they will not negotiate any further on the deal, and tonight Chief Negotiator Michel Barnier directly warned MPs that without passing the Withdrawal Agreement there would be no transition period for the UK – leading to a chaotic no-deal Brexit. After the vote, European Council President Donald Tusk’s spokesman said the result had “significantly increased the likelihood of no-deal Brexit”.
What happens next?
In overall terms, and simply put, nobody knows.
On a more procedural note, MPs will vote tomorrow on whether Britain should pursue a no-deal Brexit. Mrs May told the Commons that ahead of the vote she would publish “no deal” policies on what would happen to tariffs and the Northern Ireland border if MPs opt for no deal.
If MPs do vote for a no-deal Brexit, Mrs May said it would become official Government policy. However, it is expected to be heavily rejected despite the Government’s decision to hold a free vote.
In that event, MPs will then vote on Thursday on whether or not to seek an extension to Article 50 and prolong the UK’s membership. If that is approved, Mrs May said the Government would seek to agree an extension with the EU. But she also warned that backing an extension “does not solve the problems we face”, and the EU would want to know what the extension was for – overturning the original referendum result by revoking Article 50, holding a second referendum, or leaving with a different deal.
The PM did not specify how long an extension she might seek, but yesterday Jean-Claude Juncker said that if the UK was still a member by May 23 it would have to participate in the forthcoming European Parliament elections.
What is not currently known is whether Mrs May will seek to put her existing deal to another vote in an attempt to get it over the line.
The UK will hope to have some form of clarity before EU leaders gather next week in Brussels for a European Council meeting – just a week before the scheduled departure date of March 29.