By Pawel Swidlicki, Calum O’Byrne Mulligan and Will Walden in London
Only in the weird world of Brexit could one of the most contentious and symbolic political moments in living memory – that of the legislative taking control of parliamentary process at the expense of the executive branch – be upstaged by an even more dramatic event – that of a Prime Minister ‘chucking in the towel’.
At a little after 5pm tonight Theresa May told the 1922 Committee of her backbench MPs that the game was up – she would NOT lead them and the country into the next stage of negotiations with the European Union, if her deal passes. Mrs May told her MPs “I am prepared to leave this job earlier than I intended in order to do what is right for our country and our party.” Already Brexiteers appear to be switching sides in numbers.
Twice previously her deal has been voted on, and heavily hammered. This time around, if it passes Mrs May will quit as Prime Minister.
It’s the last throw of the dice. The ultimate in kamikaze politics. If it works, and Brexiteers and the Democratic Unionist Party’s 10 MPs now vote for the deal, alongside a dozen or so Labour MPs, we will leave the EU on or before May 22nd. Mrs May will leave too, and there will be a new Tory PM to negotiate our future relationship with the EU during a transition period, although he or she will find their room for manoeuvre constrained by the Irish border backstop.
That doesn’t mean however that tonight’s historic Commons votes on a preferred way forward for Brexit are now irrelevant, even if MPs found that taking control was easier than working out what to do with that control – all the alternatives to Mrs May’s deal failed to secure a majority tonight.
If Mrs May were still unable to pass her deal, as remains likely given the DUP’s continued opposition, and the second round of indicative votes also fails to provide a breakthrough, we would most probably need a longer extension to Article 50. If this in turn led to a new Tory PM taking over, they would be negotiating with the EU knowing that a fundamentally remain facing House of Commons had indicated a way forward that probably wasn’t in line with his or her thinking.
Now where have we heard that before?! Anyone for a General Election?
As always, here’s what happened, why it matters and what comes next…
What has happened?
Prime Minister Theresa May has told Conservative MPs that she would step down if and when Parliament passes her Brexit deal, allowing a new leader to take over the second phase of the Brexit negotiations concerning the future UK-EU relationship.
Following her announcement, several Tory MPs who had voted against her deal on both occasions, including Boris Johnson, indicated they would be prepared to back it at the third time of asking. However, a few hard-line Brexiteer MPs including former Brexit Minister Steve Baker said they would continue to oppose her deal no matter what. Dominic Raab, another potential Brexiteer candidate for the leadership who has opposed the deal, has so far not commented on May’s announcement.
The DUP, whose votes will also likely be crucial to passing Mrs May’s deal, issued a statement earlier this evening in which they said that as the Government had not secured further changes to the Irish border backstop, they remain opposed to the deal.
Meanwhile, Parliament has approved a Statutory Instrument amending the 2018 EU Withdrawal Act which had set the date of Brexit as 29 March 2019, by 441 votes to 105. The amendment allows for the UK to leave the EU on either 12 April or 22 May, meaning that if the UK seeks a further, longer extension, another SI will have to be tabled.
In addition, MPs held a series of indicative votes on alternative Brexit options after MPs had seized control of the Commons agenda. All options were voted on simultaneously via a ballot paper. Conservative MPs were given free votes although Cabinet members were whipped to abstain.
However, no single alternative proposal was able to command a parliamentary majority, with an amendment calling for a permanent customs union coming closest, being defeated by 264 votes to 274. The other options to be defeated included two varieties of a single market-based future relationship, revoking Article 50 outright, no deal, and a confirmatory referendum (which was voted down by 268 votes to 295).
Why does it matter?
The Prime Minister hopes her promise not to lead the next phase of negotiations, which will ultimately determine the UK’s relationship with the EU, will win over enough MPs who have thus far opposed her deal.
Her unorthodox plea to ‘back me then sack me’ has already seen a number falling in to line but given the parliamentary arithmetic, she will need both the DUP and enough Labour rebels to counter-balance the 20 or so irreconcilable Brexiteer MPs. As things stand, she does not have their support, which in turn means it is likely that if she brings her deal back for a third meaningful vote, it will be defeated again, albeit by a narrower margin.
For the DUP, the unionist cause is paramount and Mrs May’s departure does not shift the dial for them. Meanwhile, Labour MPs may dislike Mrs May and her deal, but they are hardly going to be more open to the prospect of a harder Brexiteer taking over, especially one who might try to capitalise on any honeymoon period by calling a snap election.
Given the strong majority in the Commons against no deal, this therefore raises the prospect of a longer Article 50 extension, and it is unclear as to what Mrs May would do in such an eventuality – she has after all promised to stand down, but only if and when her deal has been approved – like all politicians she has an eye on her legacy.
The results of the indicative votes demonstrate yet again that it is much easier to reject a version of Brexit than it is to construct a coalition in support of one. They also demonstrate the extent to which both sides have been increasingly radicalised with a proposal to revoke Article 50 outright getting only four fewer votes (184) than a proposal for a softer Brexit (188). The numbers strongly indicate that that many anti-Brexit MPs refused to back softer Brexit amendments which might otherwise have had a majority.
This does not necessarily mean that a softer Brexit can be completely ruled out, it is worth noting that a previous Commons vote on a customs union back in July 2018 attracted 302 votes in favour, but it will give Mrs May some limited comfort that perhaps her deal still stands a chance.
If however MPs continue to reject both no deal and any form of Brexit deal, the only way to break the impasse will be to change the parliamentary arithmetic via a General Election.
What comes next?
The Government has tabled an emergency Business Motion to ensure that Parliament will sit this Friday. This raises the prospect of the Prime Minister asking MPs to vote on her deal for a third time on what was supposed to be Brexit day. However, Speaker John Bercow has reiterated that the deal can only be considered if there are “substantive changes” and has sought to rule out procedural motions which could have seen MPs force a vote.
Therefore, the combination of Mrs May’s continued inability to corral a parliamentary majority in favour of her deal and the Speaker’s procedural intransigence may mean that the deal is not tabled again this week.
As per the European Council’s decision last week, this would appear to rule out Brexit on 22 May, leaving only an extremely unlikely no deal Brexit on 12 April or a longer extension. This in turn would require the UK to take part in European Parliament elections on 23 May.
MPs are set to hold the next stage of the indicative votes process on Monday 1 Aprilthanks to their seizure of the parliamentary agenda – unless the Prime Minister has tabled and won the third meaningful vote on Friday. This second stage will seek to take the most popular options from today’s voting in order in the hope of finding consensus around one of the alternative options.
We do not know how many of today’s options will be carried forward – that will be down to the discretion of the Speaker – but they are likely to include the customs union, a confirmatory referendum and some variety of a single market-type relationship.