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’s Brexit deal was rejected in parliament for the second time, 391 votes to 242. While the margin fell from the record 230-vote defeat on January 15, it was still a big loss. Conservative MPs voted for the deal by 235-75, a much better result for May than the 196-118 Conservative split in January. But just three Labour MPs voted for the deal, and The Independent Group, Scottish Nationalist Party and Liberal Democrats MPs were solidly against, as were the ten Democratic Unionist Party MPs who usually support the government.
Conservative MPs were offered a free vote on March 13 on a motion that would rule out a no-deal Brexit on March 29, but noted that, without a deal passing by March 29, no-deal would happen. An amendment that would rule out no-deal in any circumstance was passed by a narrow 312-308 margin, with nine Conservatives and six Labour MPs rebelling against their party’s official position.
As the main motion had been amended, Conservative MPs were whipped against a motion on which they had been promised a free vote. The motion passed easily by 321 to 278, with 17 Conservative rebels and many abstentions including ministers. Despite these deliberate abstentions, ministers were allowed to remain in Cabinet. Note that this motion does not rule out a no-deal Brexit. Unless legislation is amended, the UK is still scheduled to Leave on March 29, with or without a deal.
After the defeats, May said that if a deal was passed, she would seek a short technical extension to enable parliament to pass necessary legislation connected to the deal. If a deal is not passed, May would request a far longer extension that would require the UK to participate in European parliamentary elections from May 23-26. In this way, May is threatening hard Leavers within her party: back her deal, or Brexit will be delayed indefinitely.
But even if most hard Leavers buckle, a few Conservatives want a softer Brexit or to Remain, and May will have given Labour MPs no additional incentive to vote for her deal, as they will believe that there will be a long delay after a “No” vote. To win many more Labour MPs, May needs to create a situation in which it is “my deal or no-deal”.
To extend Brexit, the UK requires the unanimous consent of all 27 EU nations. While some countries would object to a short extension as it creates another cliff edge soon, I believe they will be happy with a long extension that kicks the can a long way. If the UK participates in EU elections, there could easily be a re-extension. However, hard Leavers are lobbying right-wing governments in Poland, Italy and Hungary to scupper any extension request. If a country were to veto the extension, there is one way for the UK to avoid a no-deal: by taking the radical step of revoking the Brexit legislation, and Remaining within the EU. The European Court of Justice ruled in December that the UK could do this unilaterally.
On March 14, an amendment that would have led to a second referendum was defeated by 334 votes to 85. Labour officially abstained, and this abstention was supported by the People’s Vote campaign as they do not want a second referendum vote until it is that or no-deal. 25 Labour MPs voted in favour despite the official position, and 18 voted against. No current Conservative MP voted in favour.
An amendment that would have enabled parliament to take control of the Brexit process was defeated by just two votes, 314 to 312. 15 Conservative and six Labour MPs rebelled. The main motion that sought an extension to Brexit passed by 413 to 202. Conservative MPs were offered a free vote on this motion, and split against it by 188-112.
Next week, there is likely to be another vote on May’s deal by March 20, and May will be hoping she can win enough extra support from the DUP, hard Leavers and a few Labour MPs to pass it. If May’s deal passes, she will seek a short extension at the European leaders’ summit on March 21-22. Otherwise, a long extension will likely be required. Should such a long extension be granted, the Commons could still baulk at passing legislation for a long extension in the final week before Brexit on March 29.
Labour has continued to slide in the polls, with most of its lost support going straight to the Conservatives, not to the Lib Dems or Greens. I believe the perception that Labour is now an anti-Brexit party is hurting it; most voters just want to get on with Brexit, not delay it.