Brexit minus three weeks (maybe)

A preview of key Brexit votes in the House of Commons from March 12-14, on a second referendum, Theresa May’s deal, a no-deal, and a Brexit extension. Guest post by Adrian Beaumont.

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.

Author: William Bowe

William Bowe is a Perth-based election analyst and occasional teacher of political science. His blog, The Poll Bludger, has existed in one form or another since 2004, and is one of the most heavily trafficked websites on Australian politics.

89 comments on “Brexit minus three weeks (maybe)”

  1. Turning to what the EU think of today’s decision.

    EU politicians react with frustration, anger and disappointment. The readiness for further concessions is exactly zero.

    That’s a rough translation of the opening sentence, and there is lots more in that vein, but the gist of it seems to be, “We’ve done all we can. We’re done. We expect a Hard Brexit.” (The “more” uses words like joke, insane, comedy act, and so forth.)

  2. Ideally you would have a ‘preferential’ referendum. These are the choices as I see them.

    Hard Brexit with near immediate exit
    May’s Deal with near immediate exit
    ‘Soft Brexit’ based on Customs Union solution – up to two year delay
    Remain in EU

    I don’t think there’s any scope between May’s deal and a real Hard Brexit that isn’t just tinkering at the edges. Everything in that space would require either a Irish hard border or cutting NI loose.

    A short term extension in Brexit only makes sense if a general election is called or a referendum announced, because there’s no way anything else could be negotiated with only a few months on the clock before EU elections.

    For a long term extension the EU will need at least some idea of what the UK’s alternative is. I think the Customs Union approach is the only possible one at this point. Free trade deal Canada style is a dream – it would have to involve a hard border in Ireland unless NI is cut loose. I can’t see any proposals involving hard borders working.

    Popcorn supplies are running low!

  3. “Hard Brexit is making up ground on the outside at Royal Ascot as they come into the straight
    Soft Brexit with May in the saddle is flagging
    Second Referendum has dropped well back in the field, now falling behind My New Election
    And what’s that? Labour has lost all their momentum, and now they’ve also lost their rider!!
    Calamity in the Brexit Stakes!”

    More happy news from our friends in pro-Brexit Sunderland

    Nissan’s Infiniti brand to stop producing models in Sunderland this year as part of withdrawal from Western Europe in early 2020

    Nissan has today announced that Infiniti, its premium brand, is to stop producing models at its Sunderland plant by mid-2019. (Sunderland Echo)

  4. Late Riser, there are a couple other ways to avoid no-deal, but probably only in the final few days before Brexit if it becomes clear that it’s either that option or no-deal.

    May’s deal could win if Corbyn orders Labour to abstain, or enough Lab MPs vote for it to overcome Tory hard Leavers.

    Labour’s customs union could get up if enough moderate Tories vote for it to overcome passionate second referendum advocates like the SNP, TIG and Lib Dems.

    The problem with both scenarios is they would do political damage to the party seen as surrendering.

  5. The only remaining good will from the EU seems to be for Ireland. They are asking themselves if they should allow an “open back door into the EU” to save N.I. Though after reading about the breakdown of the N.I. parliament, dissolving trust within the N.I. police force, and growing civil unrest, it may already be too late.

    My OH asked me what I thought would happen to Ireland, and this slipped out before I had a chance to really think. “I think there will be a civil war. Thousands will die. In 20 years they may reunite.” After I said it I wondered if that could be the case. I’m still thinking about this.

  6. Adrian Beaumont, if ruling out a 2nd referendum is the driving logic, then absolutely, that forces the decision to be between Hard Brexit or May’s Brexit. The EU appear to have given up.

    Your comment on political damage reminds me of the problem with adversarial systems. There is little room for nuance when each successive result is black or white. Brexit brinkmanship will have left the UK with two bad choices, and each player wants to lay the blame on the other. Neither appears to be trying to solve the problem.

    I’m still hoping they will find a way for a referendum or some other relief valve. Maybe they can call it a plebiscite.

  7. Rocket Rocket, I like how cleverly dressed “Mr Johnson” is. A man on his own, rugged and determined, yet cultured and crisp , his eyes fixed on his destination. What’s not to like?

    As for the flow sheet, I get it, but there are too many options with just over 16 days to go. I don’t see the UK voting YES to a hard Brexit. I don’t see the UK then voting NO to a delay. The length of time the EU will give the UK to try again will set the parameters for what happens. So I think the next step will be up to the EU. The EU wants a short extension, though I have read that they might be amenable to a nearly 2 year extension. (There will be a need to sort out UK’s ongoing commitment to the EU if that happens, including EU parliamentary elections.) So, a short extension is most likely. The question then is what can the UK hope to do to resolve their grid lock in a couple of months?


  8. Late Riser

    It is inconceivable that the UK government (or parliament) could work out a solution in one or two months, which seems about as long as the EU are willing to give them.

    I think they will just have to somehow get a longer delay – as I have said before, maybe it will become akin to one of those “frozen conflicts” like Chechnya that seem to fester around Russia.

    If May quits it will be amusing to see ‘action man’ Boris suddenly confronted with reality!

    Actually a two year extension could be ideal – Scotland could leave the UK, and Ireland could be re-united with no border, soft or hard. Problem solved!

  9. Rocket Rocket, hopeful thoughts. There were some articles in the Guardian in the last 7 days (or so) on the topic of unrest and dis-function in N.I. The whole sectarian mess is ready to re-emerge. From what I can tell in my ignorance from the other side of the planet, Britain is disinterested in the Irish problem so it will be up to the Irish themselves to sort out and impose on the UK. The Scots I think have a different problem, in that the UK parliament has to give permission for them to hold a referendum to peacefully break away.

  10. I tried a different approach to that 8 step framework. (Actually after this morning’s vote I added a 9th step to refine the referendum at step 7 and removed the first three steps, but that’s another issue.)

    I asked myself, if I was pursuing a particular outcome, how should I influence the votes at each stage? In percentage terms, what would I like the chances to be for a particular result at each stage?

    For instance, say I am trying for Remain. I need to influence each vote. In which direction should I try to influence it and in my best case what could I achieve? I did this for Remain, Soft-Brexit, and Hard-Brexit. Here is what I got.

    REMAIN is the target.
    60% is the best I can get for Remain.
    5% Soft Brexit
    35% Hard Brexit.

    SOFT BREXIT is the target
    5% Remain
    60% is the best I can get for Soft Brexit
    35% Hard Brexit

    HARD BREXIT is the target
    0.5% Remain
    1% Soft Brexit
    99% is the best I can get for Hard Brexit.


    This looks like a shoe in for Hard Brexit, but 90% of that outcome is based on tonight’s vote for a No Deal. I guess we should watch the Hard Brexiteers.

  11. Late Riser

    I know you should never mention events in the Weimar Republic, so instead I will compare this to the missteps and mistakes in Spain in the 1920s and 1930s that eventually led to the Spanish Civil War and the Franco dictatorship. Lots of little mistakes by lots of different groups, sometimes motivated by self-interest, sometimes motivated by the prospect of damaging an opponent, sometimes even (!) motivated by some desire for your nation and people to prosper.

    But ending up with an outcome that is totally at odds with what nearly everyone wanted.

    This is what I now sense may happen – a no-deal Brexit that will be a disaster for the already depressed North, and a fire-restarter to the ‘Irish Problem’. A short delay will just surely delay the inevitable separation – the EU is understandably sick of negotiating with a UK PM who presents some ‘plan’ which she has no hope of getting through her own parliament, mainly because of the intransigence of nearly half of her own party.

    Tomorrow morning our time the Commons will vote ‘against’ a hard Brexit but in a sense it will truly be a ‘Meaningless Vote’.

  12. Okay they were voting on the amendments which was a whipped vote. Voting on no deal now–which is really a waste of time as it will happen whether they like it or not.

  13. 321 – 278. Apparently some conservative ministers were told to fuck off and go to the pub rather than vote against the govt. Resignations incoming apparently.

    Crucially May voted against the no to no-deal.

  14. Given that the EU are sick of May presenting them with deals that then she can’t get though her own Parliament, surely the only political way out for her will be to have a plebiscite on her last deal. And (the hard bit?) get Parliament to say they will act on the result.

    Yes equals Brexit with that deal.
    No equals remain.

    I know the hard line Brexiteers would go apoplectic but I can’t see any other way out. And the EU have pretty much said they won’t grant an extension unless it is for a specific reason – this plebiscite would be such a reason.

  15. The problem is that the commons is just grandstanding and May is winding down the clock.
    They can’t take no-deal off the table unless the government chooses that.
    Unless the government or corbyn choose to table a binding referendum or hold an election (which the tories would win at this rate) the EU27 won’t agree to an extension.
    400 hours to no-deal. The clock is ticking and the biggest bunch of pillocks I’ve ever seen are just sleepwalking into it.

  16. On Brexitannia, it would seem the present deal got a no, crashing out got a no in parliament:
    Apparently the next vote is on a delay rather than remain or referendum/ election?
    It sounds like the EU is ready, if perhaps not yet to flood the Chunnel. I am sure Spain would like Gibraltar. And Scotland could just secede and rejoin. Greece probably will bring up the Elgin Marbles.
    Ah well, better go get a deal with British Commonwealth of Nations countries then?
    I am sure India would like some royal rocks back.
    Caribbean still wants slave reparations (owners got it, slaves not) …
    Surely now’s a great time for early arrivals downunder to get the CWA on behalf of early (by landbridge)/ later (by boat) and even later (by plane) arrivals to seek reparations for 1788 onwards till the Australia Act(s) of 1986.
    Chances are though in the one week of parliament sitting before the federal election, the LyingN(C)P – no doubt supported by Liebor – will try and pass a special bill, to let in more Poms!
    How not to advance Australia, fair?

  17. Apparently the next vote is on a delay rather than remain or referendum/ election?

    Yep. Seems like it.

    If anyone who matters is listening, do you realise that voting on an extension is arse backwards? If you don’t know what you want how does it make sense to ask for more time to get it done? In a sane world the first thing to decide is what you want. (And I don’t mean what you as individuals want.) The EU have spent 2 years (?) explaining their side to you. You know where the walls are, and the doors too. Within that, what do you want?

    There was a member of parliament yesterday apparently, likening May’s deal with a repeatedly polished turd. He had the right analogy, but it’s not May’s deal to which it should be applied. Perhaps he should look at parliament itself.

    OK. That’s off my chest. What a spectacle.

    The current state of play would seem to be:
    NOT May’s Deal = 149 (NO:391-YES:242)
    NOT No Deal = 43 (NO:321-YES:278)
    I see a plurality for NO Deal over May’s Deal.
    Has anyone asked about Remain?

    Asking the question, if you can make everything go your way, what are the chances you will get your result? It’s a bit like those football prognostications that require you to win your next match and other matches to go a certain way as well. Do you still have a chance? How do you maximise it?

    The board can be upended, or is it redrawn, at any stage, but currently the snakes and ladders scenarios still has extension votes and the possibility of a referendum pencilled on it. So if I play with the probabilities to maximise the team result this is the best each team can get.
    67% (2 in 3) REMAIN
    67% (2 in 3) SOFT
    85% (6 in 7) HARD

    If I ask what is most likely, given what we’ve seen and where we now sit on this board, this is what I get.
    20% REMAIN
    40% SOFT
    40% HARD

    Last thought this morning is that if the board gets tossed it will be because SOFT and REMAIN get together and force it. HARD can smell victory.

  18. Rocket Rocket
    Thursday, March 14, 2019 at 7:04 am
    Given that the EU are sick of May presenting them with deals that then she can’t get though her own Parliament, surely the only political way out for her will be to have a plebiscite on her last deal. And (the hard bit?) get Parliament to say they will act on the result.
    Yes equals Brexit with that deal.
    No equals remain.
    I know the hard line Brexiteers would go apoplectic but I can’t see any other way out. And the EU have pretty much said they won’t grant an extension unless it is for a specific reason – this plebiscite would be such a reason.

    That’s pretty much how I see it from afar.

    If they were sensible (which is difficult to detect) I would expect another referendum, for the EU to grant them time, and a choice between remain and an explicit exit plan.

    If they manage that I expect remain would win. The leave ‘plan’ on the original vote had the luxury of meaning whatever you wanted it to.

  19. john NOBEL

    Very funny – on a day for black humour. Yes the “Empire 2.0” people are living in la la land.

    This should really be Blackadder series 5

    Blackadder – assistant to PM
    Stephen Fry – PM
    George – ?Corbyn
    Baldrick – ?Brexit Minister

  20. I found a little bit written on the Irish spanner in the Brexit works, written by Leave proponent.

    Had we thought more about how we could plan our EU departure around the Good Friday agreement and cross-border relations, we might not have found ourselves so stuck. But the cavalier way the Irish border was dismissed is a symptom of a problem much wider than Brexit. For years, Britain simply hasn’t paid enough attention to Northern Ireland. It has at times been treated like an unwanted son, with its appalling levels of poverty – some of the worst in the country – not even registering a blip on Britain’s political radar. Brexit’s collapse is in part a manifestation of this very serious problem.

    But his real beef is with the HARD team.

    In the end, the hard Brexiteer perfectionists bedazzled by cake and unicorns proved to be the obstacle that Brexit itself could not hurdle.

    Might teams SOFT and REMAIN, working together, add a new ladder to the Snakes and Ladders board? That new ladder would bypass team HARD and offer a chance for a win for either SOFT or REMAIN.

    Probably not.

  21. Groundhog Brexit Day number three beckons.

    And then this.

    “Bloody Sunday” in Northern Ireland January 1972.

    One British soldier charged with two murders and four attempted murders of civil rights demonstrators. No others to be charged because insufficient likelihood of a conviction.

    Just to stir the pot on the Emerald Isle a bit more.

  22. Anyway, the UK has now voted to ask for an extension, by 210 votes. (YES:412 – NO:202) What does that mean procedurally? And what are the options left?

    Starting with a now tatty looking framework, what are the chances each step happens?
    100% for Step 6: EU leaders decide on an Extension
    90% for Step 7: UK parliament to have a Referendum
    45% for Step 8: Referendum on May’s Deal or Remain
    45% for Step 9: UK parliament votes to accept May’s Deal
    I get these probabilities from guessing the decision points if the EU gives Britain a short extension, basically in order to avoid forcing Britain to hold EU elections. (A long extension has a slew of other outcomes.) This path has the following outcome probabilities.
    20% REMAIN
    50% SOFT
    30% HARD

    If you take Referendum out of the mix you get
    0% REMAIN
    45% SOFT
    55% HARD
    So I expect the Hard Brexiteers to go hard (sorry) on denying a referendum.

    What are the options left on the table?
    May’s deal – REJECTED (by UK parl)
    Another deal – REJECTED (by EU)
    No deal – REJECTED (by UK parl)
    Plebiscite – possible (needs extension)
    Withdraw & start again – possible
    Withdraw & give up – possible
    I think I’ll wait to hear from the EU before renovating the framework.

    But at the end of the day if nothing changes the UK gets a Hard Brexit.

  23. Late Riser

    The thread has fallen so far down – not on first page – that it is ‘invisible’ to most.

    Just caught up with the 314-312 vote that could have led to a series of indicative votes on various issues – that would have been interesting.

    But I think May’s plan is to just run down the clock and get the Brexiteers on board as they would be fearful of a new referendum or just abandonment of the whole thing.

  24. Rocket Rocket

    Agreed. May is pushing for her deal. If the EU don’t approve an extension next week, and given it only takes one of the 27 to say “No Extension”, that’s probably her best shot. It will be May’s way or the highway. I can see enough MPs voting “highway” (hard Brexit) out of anger or spite.

    (I have this page bookmarked. That makes me a Tragic I suppose.)

  25. Player One @ #86 Friday, March 15th, 2019 – 5:26 pm

    Adrian Beaumont @ #84 Friday, March 15th, 2019 – 2:05 pm

    I sent William Bowe my latest Brexit article about 80 minutes ago, so hopefully there’ll be a new Brexit thread soon.

    I hope someone posts here when there is. I don’t think that happened last time.

    I went back and posted ‘previous’ and ‘next’ links on each thread, but it was well after the newest thread was created. Vigilance!

  26. What a day…so catching up on some Brexit happenings.

    1) Labour is divided on a 2nd referendum. Shadow ministers are resigning rather than abstaining over it.
    Voting AGAINST a referendum and resigning her position was more important than abstaining and not voting either way. Another 4 shadow ministers joined her after the vote.


    only 85 MPs voted for a referendum that would have had remain as an option

    A 2nd referendum is far from certain.

    2) May will try a third time to get May’s Deal accepted before going to the EU to ask for an extension. The EU have signalled that May will need a good reason for an extension, and hinted strongly that a referendum may be a good reason. My thought is that May is only talking to her government members. To them she is saying you have three bad choices. (A) May’s deal. (B) A Labour government if you decide for a referendum. (C) Hard Brexit.

    She expects self-interest to win, that is a Soft (May’s deal) Brexit.

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