December 11th 2018 will be an especially historic moment in Britain’s long story. Following five days of debate, on that day the UK’s House of Commons will decide to vote in favour or reject the exit deal that prime minister Theresa May has reached with the European Union. If the Commons votes in favour the UK will leave the EU on 29th March 2019. Right now, the chances of Mrs May getting her deal through look extremely thin. Indeed, she might be defeated by over 100 votes.
Things have not started well for Mrs May. Parliament inflicted three procedural defeats on her government on the first day of the Brexit debate. The most damaging was parliament’s ruling, for the first time in history, that the government was in contempt of parliament for refusing to comply with an instruction from the Commons to make public the legal advice on the EU deal the government had received from its law officers. This ruling has badly damaged the government’s confidence. The more important defeat is the one that has given parliament the power to decide on key issues affecting the UK’s relations with the EU if Mrs May’s EU deal goes down on 11 December.
But a week is a long time in politics and Mrs May’s will use every bit of patronage, bullying and appeals to loyalty she can to bring her Conservative party to heal. She’ll also have to do something spectacular to win the votes of Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). Without the DUP’s 10 votes she can’t win. If, against all the odds, she mollifies her own party and the DUP and pulls off a great victory her Conservative party will allow her to stay in office to usher the country out of the UK at the end of March next year. Then they will force her out of 10 Downing Street.
If she is defeated on 11th December, what happens next? There are numerous possibilities, though what is certain is that the UK will be faced with the most difficult period in its political life since the English Civil War, 370 years ago. So, here we go, in the great Westminster roller-coaster.
- Mrs May attempts to get the EU to soften the terms of the deal. If successful, she’ll bring the matter back to the Commons and will hope that the changes are enough to bring her success. The fact is the EU is unlikely to be able to help the UK. Its 27 members have had enough and gone as far as they are prepared to go.
- She could simply resign, saying she can do no more and it is for others to take up the challenge. Theresa May has a steely character and resigning would her very last option. Resigning may solve nothing, as her party would be unlikely to agree to who its new leader should be.
- A rudderless Conservative party would prompt Labour, the official opposition, to table a motion of no confidence in the government. The government has relied on the DUPs 10 votes for a majority. The DUP though sees Mrs May’s deal as a betrayal and is confident it will win all its seats in a general election, so will vote down the government if it thinks its will is to thwarted. Without the DUP votes the government would fall and a general election follow. Because the UK has a five-year fixed term parliament, there is the possibility that if Labour could do a deal with the Scottish National Party MPs it could form a government. Mr Corbyn would have 14 days to put together a coalition. The Queen would have to be confident Mr Corbyn’s coalition arrangement is solid before to him agreeing to him forming a government. The Queen would be highly unlikely not to give her consent, but these are turbulent times. Nothing can be ruled out.
- Mrs May could announce a second referendum to give the people a final say; “accept her deal, quit the EU without a deal or stay in the European Union?” This option is growing more and more likely, though if passed by parliament it would surely and finally split the Conservative party, seeing at least 40 hardline, Right wing, Brexit MPs quitting to set up a new party.
- Mrs May takes the biggest gamble of all and calls a general election. The prime minister has a poor record as a campaigner. When she called a snap election in 2017 the Conservative party lost its majority and that created the sorry mess the UK is now in. If she wins she will return to Westminster in triumph. She will get her deal through. If there is a hung parliament it will be depend how it is hung. If Labour wins a majority it is likely that it will ask the EU for a delay of up to two years so it can negotiate a new deal. It would be a huge shift in EU behavior for it to agree to Mr Corbyn’s request. Far more likely is that Mr Corbyn calls a referendum on the EU matter. The outcome would be as uncertain as anything else in Britain’s current political landscape.
Now, before you al drop off to sleep, there’s one more giant battle waiting in the wings if Mrs May’s deal is voted down. Legally, if there is no deal agreed by parliament the UK will still be on track to leave the EU in March 2019, leaving without any deal in place.
So, the first thing parliament will do, even before any no confidence votes, is attempt to pass legislation to suspend the UK’s withdrawal from the EU, effectively keeping the UK in the EU and all its institutions and structures. But that can be a temporary measure only. Parliament cannot simply ignore the instruction of the vote of 2016 to leave the EU. It cannot ignore democracy. It can only offer more democracy.
For parliament to simply decide that the UK is not leaving the EU would be wholly undemocratic. It would also lead to wholly unwanted levels of political instability. The route out of the log jam is a second referendum. A second referendum also has big political risks. There are no easy or simple ways for the UK to get itself out of trouble. There are only bad ways and less and bad ways.
I’ll report back when parliament has voted on 11th December. I can promise perhaps some explanation and some guidance through the labyrinth that Brexit has created for Britain. I suspect I’ll be reporting more confusion and uncertainty. Watch this space.
Martin Roche is a graduate of the great and ancient University of Aberdeen, Scotland, where he read politics and international relations. He began his working life on a daily newspaper in Scotland and has since written for many newspapers, magazines and radio stations in the UK and internationally. As a communications consultant, he has advised political and business leaders in over 20 countries.