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29 March 2019

Edelman Brexit Bulletin: Third time unlucky for May, now a long delay?

Government Affairs, News

By Pawel Swidlicki, Calum O’Byrne Mulligan and Lucy Thomas in London

It was third time unlucky for Theresa May today as MPs rejected her divorce deal once again by 58 votes.

What happens now? On Monday, the indicative votes process will conclude, with MPs voting on options such as a Customs Union or a second referendum. Given they rejected all these options this week, it is possible that no majority will be found and Monday will see a repeated chorus of “No”. 

What happens then? The legal default remains that the UK will leave the EU without a deal on 13th April. To avoid this, the Prime Minister said a long extension would be needed, including the UK taking part in May’s European Elections. The EU has already called an emergency summit for 10th April in an attempt to avert a chaotic exit and hope to agree such an extension.

You might think that after three defeats, all this would render the Withdrawal Agreement fatally flawed, yet the Prime Minister implied it will keep coming back as all other versions of Brexit will require it passing to proceed.

May also hinted at a possible General Election if the deadlock can’t be broken, saying “I fear we are reaching the limits of this process in this House”.  

The Edelman London Public Affairs team tell you what happened, why it matters and what comes next is below:

What has happened? 

  • The House of Commons voted by a majority of 58 votes to reject the Withdrawal Agreement negotiated by the UK Government and the EU (344 against, 286 for). Unlike the two previous meaningful votes, MPs today voted on the Withdrawal Agreement only, without the Political Declaration on the future relationship. 
  • Many Conservative MPs who had previously voted against the deal reluctantly backed it this time to avoid a long extension, a softer Brexit or none at all. This includes key Brexiteers such as Boris Johnson, Jacob Rees-Mogg, Dominic Raab and Iain Duncan Smith. 
  • However, 34 Tories, nearly all of them Brexiteers, voted against the deal as did the DUP who remained concerned about the potential of the Irish backstop to lead to new barriers between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.
  • Prime Minister Theresa May had sought to woo a group of Labour MPs in Leave seats, but got the backing of just five of them (up from three last time). She had hoped that by separating the Withdrawal Agreement, which Labour have accepted in principle, from the issue of the future relationship, she could deliver the necessary votes. However, the Opposition wholly rejected the prospect of a so-called “blindfold Brexit”, meaning that there would be no guarantee about the future direction, particularly under a new Conservative party leader. 
  • Addressing MPs after the vote, Mrs May said that “I fear we are reaching the limits of this process in this House.” Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn called on the Prime Minister to accept that her deal was dead, and that if she was unable to do so, there should be a General Election. 
  • Reacting to the result, European Council President Donald Tusk announced there would be an extraordinary European Council summit on Wednesday 10 April. 

What does it mean?

  • The failure of the House of Commons to pass the Withdrawal Agreement today means that the Article 50 process will be extended until 12 April only under the EU agreement, with the onus on the UK Government to present an alternative way forward.
  • Given MPs have on several occasions comprehensively voted against no deal, Mrs May strongly implied this would therefore mean a longer extension with the UK having to take part in the European elections – providing that all 27 other member states agree to this.
  • Although many will see today’s defeat as the final death knell for the Withdrawal Agreement, the EU has repeatedly made it clear that it will not be re-opened. Mrs May echoed this point arguing that any alternative Brexit option would still require the Withdrawal Agreement.
  • Therefore, the most viable way forward would involve finding a Political Declaration that can command a majority of support in the House. The next opportunity for this will come on Monday when MPs take part in the second stage of the indicative votes process, which will test support for alternative options such as a customs union or a confirmatory referendum.
  • If this were to happen, this could then be put to a package vote alongside the Withdrawal Agreement and potentially, if approved next week, still allow for Brexit to take place by 22 May.
  • However, as we saw on Thursday, it is easier for MPs to reject options they dislike rather than coalescing around a viable alternative. It is not a given by any means that such an option will emerge next week, and even if it does, that it would be acceptable to the Government. 
  • Therefore, the only option to break the impasse would be an early General Election which would take place during the longer extension period. Mrs May’s statement about reaching the limits of this process in this House suggests she has also reached this conclusion, and Labour would clearly welcome this outcome. Indeed, for this reason they have little incentive to compromise and facilitate an orderly Brexit at this point, not least since that would also hand the Tories an opportunity for a reset under a new leader. 
  • Given the huge opposition within the party to May leading the party any longer than necessary, any General Election would likely have to be preceded by a Tory leadership campaign. 
  • Today also saw the previously strong alliance between Brexiteers in the ERG bloc and the DUP fracture, after many of the former backed the agreement. The DUP indicated they would prefer a longer extension and potentially a softer Brexit in order to protect the Union whereas many ERG MPs demonstrated that ultimately, Brexit comes first for them.

What comes next? 

  • On Monday MPs will again hold a further series of indicative votes in an effort to try to find an alternative plan. This could entail either trying to agree a different Political Declaration and/or putting the deal back to the people via a confirmatory referendum.
  • Given the difficulty in reaching a majority consensus, it has been suggested that we could see some form of preferential voting to identify a proposition that MPs deem to be the least objectionable.
  • Depending on how this plays out, we could see another attempt at passing a meaningful vote next week in order to prevent a longer extension.
  • However, it is now most likely that Mrs May will have to request a lengthy extension of Article 50 at the extraordinary European Council summit on 10 April. This could then allow for a General Election – with a likely new Conservative party leader – to try to break the parliamentary deadlock and get a fresh mandate from the British public.
  • If granted by the remaining 27 EU leaders – who all have to agree – the UK will then have to take part in the European elections on 23 May.
  • The Independent Group of MPs have applied to the Electoral Commission to be formally recognised as a political party called ‘Change UK – the Independent Group’ in order to take part in these elections and any snap General Election. It is expected that Nigel Farage’s new Brexit Party will also context these elections. 

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