Buckle up people because we are getting ready for yet another ‘crunch week’ in the self-inflicted nightmare that has dominated the last two years of British politics. With less than three weeks to the deadline I am wondering whether or not to celebrate that the drama could soon be over, or worried that it hasn’t even started.
This week is the week where Theresa May has to put her withdrawal agreement to Parliament - again. You might recall that they first voted on the deal back in December, where they overwhelmingly rejected the proposal in historic numbers. Rather than resign, May said that she will go and get the deal renegotiated and bring it back to MPs. The EU told her that a renegotiation wasn’t going to happen, especially not as the UK basically kept repeating the same demands expecting a different answer.
Three months later, and the deal remains just as despised, complete with the controversial backstop as a solution to the Irish border, and the likelihood is that the deal will be voted down again.
I will try and breakdown the likely timeline of events for the next few days, but please bare in mind that this will be subject to change as, even at this late stage, the government is scrabbling to try and prop up the DOA deal. May’s visit to Strasburg last night secured additional legal clarifications, but has not changed the wording of the agreement, and the Attorney General has seemingly put the nail in the coffin of the deal by saying that the risk of being trapped in the backstop has not been removed.
After a day of debate, MPs will vote on whatever Theresa May has managed to secure. At time of writing what they are voting on isn’t substantively different to the deal voted down in December, and most MPs know that. Most problematic is the backstop, designed to prevent a hard border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. Under the terms of the deal, the backstop would see the UK bound to the EU indefinitely, or at least until a solution to the border is found - something that has thus far eluded the government.
It is widely expected that Parliament will vote the deal down, the question is by how large a margin. If the loss is by less that 50, then May might have some room to maneuver. However, if the loss is anywhere near the 230 that she saw last time around, it’s hard to view the deal as anything but dead. The government will certainly be perceived as having lost control of proceedings.
In normal times a prime minister would stand down - or be removed - for losing by such numbers, but May didn’t step down last time and under Conservative Party rules she cannot be challenged for leadership again until at least December. This means she could continue to try and push on, or she might call it quits and step aside.
If, or perhaps when Parliament votes down the deal, we will then see a minimum of two more votes this week, likely a day apart.
The first, likely held on Wednesday, will be a vote on whether or not to rule out a no-deal Brexit. This will be a crucial vote, as if Parliament fails to rule out a no-deal Brexit then it is basically assured that the UK will crash out of the EU without a withdrawal agreement. Luckily, there is next to no appetite for this to happen, and it is widely expected that it will pass.
What will be more interesting is how, or indeed if, Theresa May whips her MPs to vote one way or the other. To this point, the threat of a no-deal has been used as a threat to attempt to rally MPs behind her agreement, so she might try to force MPs to vote against it in the hopes of putting the agreement up for one final vote before the deadline. However, a number of frontbenchers have threatened to resign if she tries it. But, if she whips MPs to vote for the bill she will be removing the threat of a no-deal, and with it, her main bargaining chip.
Should Parliament vote to rule out a no-deal Brexit, then the third vote will be to decide whether or not to extend Article 50 to give the government more time to (hopefully) try a new strategy to break the deadlock.
Even if the deal is passed, it is likely that an extension will be required just to make sure all of the necessary legislation has time to be debated and get passed.
Questions remain on how long any extension should be. Both the government and Brexiteers are of the opinion that any deal should be for as short a time as possible, ideally less than three months so that the UK is out before EU Parliament starts sitting in July.
Remainers are more keen to see a longer extension in the hope of mounting a movement in Parliament for a second referendum, although it’s hard to see this taking off currently.
To complicate things further, even if Parliament does vote to extend Article 50, the extension request has to be accepted by the EU. While they have indicated that they would be willing to do so, they have been clear in stating that they won’t if they feel that the UK is not willing to adopt a different approach. Essentially, they are done playing games and want to see a genuine effort to negotiate, rather than asking for the same impossible things again and again.
What is the best way forward?
It’s hard to say. Well, it’s not, in an ideal world we would put this all behind us and rescind Article 50. However, given then political fallout that would ensue, no politician will ever outright cancel Brexit. To that end, a referendum would be the best way forward. I have outlined the democratic reasoning behind a second referendum here.
This being said, there still appears to be little appetite for a second referendum. Despite it being a Labour policy to pursue a second referendum, Corbyn is continuing to play both sides and equivocate on whether or not he will deliver on that instead of simply pursuing a softer Brexit.