The big Brexit vote is upon us and all bets are on Theresa May’s deal being rejected by MPs. That will trigger days and weeks of Westminster horse-trading over how, when and maybe even whether the U.K. leaves the EU.
Here’s your guide on how to watch the fiendishly complicated political bust-up play out:
When will the vote happen?
The vote, rescheduled from its original date of December 11, will take place on Tuesday, January 15, most likely at around 7 p.m. local time or shortly thereafter. Exact timings will depend on proceedings in the House of Commons. A further postponement of the vote at this stage looks unlikely.
Is it just one vote?
It is very likely there will also be votes, in advance of the main one, on amendments to the government motion. How significant these are depends on which amendments are selected. Some amendments, if passed, could be so-called wrecking amendments, which effectively supersede the vote on the main question. Senior Labour MP Hilary Benn’s amendment, which would reject the deal and rule out no-deal, would probably fall into this category.
Other amendments, such as one put forward by Conservative MP Andrew Murrison proposing that the deal is approved “subject to a legal codicil being added to the Withdrawal Agreement Treaty which specifies that the backstop solution shall expire on 31 December 2022,” could place conditions on the vote. Much will depend on which amendments Speaker John Bercow selects to be voted on.
What happens if MPs back the deal?
If MPs back the deal (most observers think this is highly unlikely given the large numbers of MPs who have come out against it) its parliamentary journey is effectively over. The House of Lords only gets to debate the motion and doesn’t have a vote. Once the U.K. side of the ratification process is complete, the European Parliament must approve the deal before it is finalized.
If that hurdle is cleared (and most expect it would be) then the deal would come into force when the U.K. leaves the EU on March 29, and immediately enters a standstill transition period lasting 21 months, with the option to extend for “up to one or two years,” as per the text of the Withdrawal Agreement.
What happens if MPs don’t back the deal?
In a word: uncertainty. Under the terms of the amendment put down by Tory backbencher Dominic Grieve last week, May must return to the House of Commons with an alternative motion within three sitting days (that’s Monday next week) setting out what she plans to do next. In the ordinary run of things this motion would not automatically be amendable, but Speaker John Bercow has shown his willingness to upturn parliamentary convention, so this could be the moment that MPs begin putting forward alternative Brexit plans for indicative votes.
What will Labour do?
The Labour opposition has committed itself to putting forward a motion of no confidence in the government if the vote on May’s deal is lost. Leader Jeremy Corbyn has been coy about precisely when this will be but there have been reports that MPs have been told to expect it within hours of defeat, and for the vote to be held on Wednesday.
If the deal is voted down, a delay to Brexit looks increasingly likely.
A no-confidence vote requires a simple majority, and if passed it will trigger a 14-day period during which Labour, or in theory any other collective of MPs, have the opportunity to try and form a government that can win a confidence vote in parliament. If after 14 days no party has won a confidence vote, an election must be held. However, few expect the government to lose the original no confidence vote, as Brexiteer Tories and the Democratic Unionist Party, who back May’s government in a confidence-and-supply arrangement, are not likely to open the door to a Corbyn government.
There is talk of parliament ‘taking control.’ What does that mean?
If the deal is voted down, a small group of senior MPs plan to amend the government’s motion next week, in a way that could change House of Commons convention, giving backbench MPs more power to bring forward motions setting out the business of the Commons — and thus seizing control of the Brexit agenda.
Tory MP Nick Boles said the amendment would, if passed next week, allow May three weeks to find a compromise plan that could secure a majority in the Commons. If she cannot, responsibility for doing this would pass to the liaison committee of chairs of House of Commons committees. The committee includes an eclectic mix of party and Brexit opinion.
What about a second referendum?
This would remain an option, but is one that would probably come from MPs. May has repeatedly, in very strong terms, stated her opposition to such an outcome and is unlikely to suggest it as a compromise, unless it were a simple choice between her deal and no deal. She would, however, have to present that plan sure in the knowledge that MPs would try to amend it to add a “Remain” option.
When is the UK due to leave the EU?
For the UK to leave the EU it had to invoke Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty which gives the two sides two years to agree the terms of the split. Theresa May triggered this process on 29 March, 2017, meaning the UK is scheduled to leave at 11pm UK time on Friday, 29 March 2019.
So is Brexit definitely happening?
The UK is due to leave the European Union on 29 March, 2019 – it’s the law, regardless of whether there is a deal with the EU or not. Stopping Brexit would require a change in the law in the UK.
The European Court of Justice ruled on 10 December 2018 that the UK could cancel the Article 50 Brexit process without the permission of the other 27 EU members, and remain a member of the EU on its existing terms, provided the decision followed a “democratic process”. Prime Minister Theresa May has warned Conservative MPs thinking of voting against the deal she has reached with the EU that they risk “no Brexit at all”. This is a reference to another referendum, which is backed by the SNP, Lib Dems, Plaid Cymru the Green Party, a small number of Conservatives and Labour MPs, who want the public to be given the final say, with the option to remain in the EU. They are trying to get the Labour leadership to back them – but Jeremy Corbyn wants to try and force a general election first.
A General election is the only real People’s vote.
Calling for a second referendum is a seemingly straightforward and democratic option to decide whether the negotiated Brexit agreement or the no-deal scenario is what the British would like or not.
However, such a campaign is rooted in the same illegitimate and undemocratic notion as the first referendum, which would not justify a new vote but only discredit its result. Holding a new vote would lead to a vicious cycle where each side would try to let people vote until they receive their preferred outcome. Moreover, what is there to be gained from a second referendum that reverses Brexit? In that case, Remainers would be happy, but the other half of the electorate would feel betrayed, leading to further polarisation and a failure to address the fundamental political division at hand.
In light of this difficult situation, I think the outcome of the first referendum cannot be contested in the same way but has to be challenged by democratic means. Consequently, instead of calling for a new vote, an alternative would be to hold a general election to elect a new House of Commons which will then be empowered by the people.
Each political party should present their Brexit manifesto based on their exit strategy allowing voters to choose their prefered option of leaving the EU.
Will Article 50 need to be extended (and Brexit delayed)?
If the deal is voted down, a delay to Brexit looks increasingly likely.
All of the scenarios set out above would require more time than the legally enshrined exit date of March 29 and since there is no majority in the House of Commons for no deal, one way or another it is likely the U.K. will play for more time. Even if May does not call for it herself, MPs could attempt to force the prime minister’s hand.
An extension of Article 50 would require the unanimous backing of the EU27 member countries. This is likely to be forthcoming, at least until July when the new European Parliament sits for the first time. Beyond that it would be more complicated, requiring a discussion about financial commitments and the continuing role, or otherwise, of British MEPs. But it could potentially be negotiable.
What would the EU do if the deal is voted down?
The EU27 are proceeding with ratification on their side, so that theoretically the U.K. could approve the existing deal at any point right up until the March 29 deadline. Most immediately, they intend to adopt a wait-and-see approach, expecting a rejection of the deal would unleash unpredictable developments in London.
The EU27 have said consistently that if the U.K.’s red lines change then another deal could be possible. If the U.K. comes back simply asking for more concessions, EU leaders would have to break their mantra that the current deal cannot be renegotiated. The EU27 have indicated they would consider an extension of the March 29 withdrawal deadline if the U.K. offers justification for the postponement — in order to hold a second referendum, for instance, or a new national election.
The ultimate measure of a Government is not where it stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where it stands at times of challenge and controversy.
This government has been found short in all measures!
The problem with Brexit is not leaving the EU but the incompetence or unwillingness of our elected Government and the parliamentarians to deliver on their promise to carry out the result of the referendum.