In a rational world, where actors behave according to their stated preferences, May’s deal should pass next week.
The Withdrawal Agreement we have is non-negotiable, and is *given Brexit* a good deal for the UK. For all those MPs who either support Brexit or although opposing it accept the result of the referendum, the rational course is to vote for it. A healthy majority.
The Political Declaration is all still to be agreed, and although those who favour a closer or more distant relationship with the EU may object to it, they can either argue their case at the relevant time, or support a change after the deal is struck. The Withdrawal Agreement is forever, the future relationship can always be changed.
But, that is not the world we live in. The Labour opposition, although having no substantive objection to the Withdrawal Agreement will vote against May’s deal, and for good party political tactical reasons would oppose any conceivable deal she proposed. As things stand, only a handful of die hard Lexiteers will back her.
A majority of the Conservative “European Research Group” (sic) oppose the Withdrawal Agreement because the guarantee of there being no hard border in Ireland limits the UK’s future ability to enter trade deals with third party states whilst also having no border between the mainland and Northern Ireland. They therefore oppose the only sensible Brexit there will ever be in their lifetimes.
So, if as seems likely at the time of writing, the government fails to pass the Meaningful Vote approving its deal through the Commons at the third attempt, what next?
Avoiding No Deal
There are currently two ways of avoiding a no deal Brexit on Friday 29 March. The first is revocation of its article 50 notification by the UK. This requires legislation (the arguments to the contrary are so feeble as to be unworthy of examination). Although emergency primary legislation can and has been passed speedily in the past (a day suffices), this has been possible because unopposed. Legislation to revoke would be passionately opposed in both the Commons and the Lords. There is also, as things stand, at most around 100 MPs who currently favour this option. Lack of time and political will rule it out.
The second is delay. This requires no legislation, but does require EU27 agreement. Donald Tusk, the President of the European Council yesterday, wholly predictably, ruled out the Prime Minister’s request for a short delay for no discernible purpose. Such a short delay, up until the European elections, would only be available if the current deal is approved.
The choice is the UK’s. It must be the party to make any request, the EU27 will not be making an offer without one. The UK could make a successful request for a longer extension if it were for a purpose (such as a referendum, a General Election, or possibly merely a change in government to pursue a new policy). Such a request would entail the UK participating in European Parliamentary elections, and having MEPs (which will cause problems with reallocated UK seats, but probably not insuperable ones). Any responsible UK government must do this before Friday if the deal is not approved by Parliament.
In the Commons yesterday Mrs May made it clear that she is not prepared to serve as Prime Minister if Brexit is delayed beyond 30 June. I believe her.
If she refused to put in a request for a long delay she would quickly face a vote of no confidence. There are sufficient Tory MPs who realise that no deal Brexit would be a disaster that this vote would pass. May knows that as well.
Her only course therefore would either be to resign immediately upon losing the Meaningful Vote, recommending a Prime Minister commanding majority support prepared to request such a delay, or (more probably) herself request a long delay in order for there to be a change in Government, whilst agreeing to serve for such time until Conservative leadership elections took place.
It may be that it was for that reason that she made the apparently counterproductive statement last night blaming the Commons for the delay to Brexit, whilst making no apparent appeal to win over waverers. She knows she has lost.
Can any Deal pass?
A long delay doesn’t change the arithmetic or the necessary features of the deal. Any conceivable Withdrawal Agreement looks near identical to this one, and the ERG will oppose it. The opposition will oppose it for the same (good, tactical) reasons it does now. There is no majority possible. in a year’s time employing the same tactics.
What if there were an election and Labour won a majority? Could it pass an alternative Brexit deal? Again, the Conservatives would oppose any such deal on the same basis that Labour opposes this one: because proposed by their opponents. Labour would have as large, possibly larger, group of rebel MPs who opposed the deal from the opposite perspective of the ERG: they favour Remain or something much closer to it than Labour would offer.
So, the only way a deal could have passed would have been for there to have been a Conservative government with such a large majority that it was not dependent on the ERG’s Brexiteers against Brexit. That majority was what May sought in the general election of 2017, and failed to obtain.
The Way Out?
A delay is, however, just a delay. Where will we be in a year?
A future government that wishes to pursue Brexit has two options. First it could (as I thought May would) decouple the Withdrawal Agreement and the Political Declaration, offering Parliament the option of the guidelines it wishes to pursue on the future relationship. Whether this will cause a significant number of opposition votes to change may be doubted. Second it could offer a confirmatory referendum as the price for Parliament approving the deal (with the options being between Remain and Agreed Leave).
If the deal does not pass this week, the Prime Minister will at most be a caretaker by its end. Come what May.