Guest post by Adrian Beaumont, who joins us from time to time to provide commentary on elections internationally. Adrian is an honorary associate at The University of Melbourne. His work on electoral matters for The Conversation can be found here, and his own website is here.
On March 12, Theresa May will attempt to get her deal approved by the Commons for the first time since the crushing 432 to 202 defeat on January 15. An amendment, now officially supported by Labour, would allow May’s deal to pass, conditional on a second referendum occurring with Remain and May’s deal as the options. Although a second referendum is passionately supported by many MPs who want to Remain, the amendment is likely to lose by a substantial margin. As commentator Stephen Bush wrote in the I, there are too many Labour MPs who will oppose a second referendum even with official Labour support. Some Conservative MPs who favour a soft Brexit also oppose a second referendum.
The vote on May’s deal is likely to fail by a substantial margin, though not as badly as the first defeat. The Eurosceptic European Research Group (ERG) had demanded changes to limit the contentious Northern Ireland “backstop” to secure their support. However, negotiations between the European Union and UK appear to have broken down. With no amendment to the backstop, May is likely to lose most of the 118 Conservative MPs who voted against the original deal, and the ten DUP MPs. Only three Labour MPs backed May’s deal in January; more are expected to support the deal this time, but not enough to affect the result.
If May’s deal fails, the Commons will vote on whether Britain should leave without a deal on March 13. Even if the Conservatives whip in favour of no-deal, this is very likely to be defeated. If the Conservatives allow a free vote for their MPs, it will be interesting to see how many vote in favour of a no-deal Brexit.
If May’s deal and no-deal both fail, a vote on extending Brexit beyond the March 29 exit date will be held on March 14. Given the concern among moderate Conservative MPs that forced May to offer this extension vote last week, this vote is likely to pass, even if the Conservatives whip against.
But even if the Commons approves a Brexit delay, it must also be approved unanimously by the 27 EU nations – and last week France and Spain said they would only approve an extension with conditions. May would only ask for a short extension. If it were granted, June 30 would be the new deadline for the Commons to pass a deal, as European elections will be held in late May. Without UK participation in those elections, Britain will probably not be able to continue as an EU member after the new EU parliament begins its term on July 1. A delay to Brexit is likely to result in another cliff edge in late June.
If a no-deal Brexit is to be avoided, one of two things must happen by March 29 or late June. Either a large number of Conservative MPs must vote for either Jeremy Corbyn’s favoured customs union or a second referendum, or a large number of Labour MPs must vote for May’s deal. Labour cannot hope to get its customs union through without Conservative support due to opposition from passionate second referendum advocates. Large support from one party for the other party’s proposal would likely be damaging for that party. A no-deal Brexit is likely to damage the Conservatives. Labour is likely to win politically if there is a no-deal Brexit or a customs union with Conservative support, but lose if May’s deal gets through on Labour support.