Brexit minus two weeks (perhaps)

Theresa May loses another vote on her deal heavily, but threatens hard Leavers with a long Brexit delay if they don’t pass her deal. Guest post by Adrian Beaumont.

Guest post by Adrian Beaumont, who joins us from time to time to provide commentary on elections internationally. Adrian’s 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.

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.

72 comments on “Brexit minus two weeks (perhaps)”

  1. So there’s this first impasse of May wanting a 3rd vote but Bercow refusing substantially the same bill to come for a vote.

    One would think that a majority parliamentary vote to override Bercow indicates support for May’s deal?

    Assuming May cannot get her deal up then there will be no short extension agreed to by the EU.

    That leaves no deal, long extension and revoking a50 as the only possible outcomes.

    May will not revoke and is now positioning that she will not request a long extension. This is a sop to the ERG and might be a bluff that she will have to fold on if she wants to prevent no deal.

    If she is not bluffing/folding then a vote of no confidence and installing a different pm before 29/3 to presumably request a long extension… seems to be about the only avenue left to avoid a no deal? I can see enough tory backbenchers feeling like they have to do this for the sake of the country.

    I think May is bluffing to force her deal thru as the least worst option for those terrified of their respective nightmare scenario (be it no deal or non-exit anytime soon). Its the only tactic she has and it might work. She has to be all-in on this tactic because if it doesnt work, whether she is bluffing or not, she wont be pm on March 29 i have to believe.

    Trouble is if Corbyn isnt willing to ask for a long extension then he cant be the alternative pm installed? He’s doing his best to play this as badly as possible himself.

    Absolute mayhem.

  2. Rocket Rocket

    Her spokesman explains this by saying she is frustrated with parliament’s “inability to take a decision”.

    This sounds like something the EU negotiators have been saying for a while now.

    She has reacted not with humility or contrition or openness, but with a tone so lecturing and hubristic that many MPs have thought her deeply arrogant.

    She just hasn’t applied it to herself.

    It is almost as if May is just passing through what she’s getting from the EU who are doing the lion’s share of the work to find a workable solution. May failed a long time ago at the first hurdle, to unite the UK with a vision. No wonder the negotiations have floundered and now look like failing.

    The UK is acting like it is up to the EU to figure this thing out. Emotionally this makes sense, since it is the UK who blame the EU for their ills. But for those responsible to the people of the UK it is damming. For her part, May is the messenger or go between. And while I don’t doubt that May understands this, her responses so far have been to try to command. She has failed to lead.

  3. Adrian Beaumont @ #53 Thursday, March 21st, 2019 – 11:43 am

    I’ve submitted a new Brexit article to WB, so another thread should be posted soon-ish.

    Can anyone tell me how to post pictures in comments?

    Looking forward to your article. 🙂

    About posting images, the first thing is that the image has to be somewhere “on the internet”, it can’t reside just on your device. Then you link to the image in your comment. The only gotcha is that WordPress deletes the link if it starts with http, so the link has to start with https.

    I use postimage to upload any images I want to share on this blog, then link to them. There are other image sharing sites. Also, some people post them on twitter and link to that.

  4. Great!

    Most important thing from that graphic is that softer Brexit than May’s deal most popular with all voters (45-30). May’s deal only one point more popular with both all voters and Tories than no-deal.

  5. Adrian Beaumont @ #57 Thursday, March 21st, 2019 – 2:40 pm

    Great!

    Most important thing from that graphic is that softer Brexit than May’s deal most popular with all voters (45-30). May’s deal only one point more popular with both all voters and Tories than no-deal.

    How does the UK end up with a “softer Brexit” if the EU is unwilling to negotiate one?

  6. “How does the UK end up with a “softer Brexit” if the EU is unwilling to negotiate one?”

    this would be implicit in a long extension grant – the purpose of which being to negotiate a new basis other than May’s.

    without a long extension, its impossible

  7. Adrian

    Interesting graphic. How old are the data? If I round the numbers to the nearest 5% and ignore the don’t know’s (aka don’t cares) I can make some guesses as to the mood of the UK.

    1) State of Parties
    The governing party is disappointing the voters.

    2) Should MPs back PMs deal?
    Conservatives say yes, no-one else much cares.

    3) May’s deal v No deal
    Take out the don’t knows (aka don’t cares), Soft Brexit and Hard Brexit are neck and neck. Still.

    4) May’s deal v two-year delay
    A two-year extension isn’t unpopular in general, but very unpopular by conservatives. They want it sorted.

    5) May’s deal v softer Brexit
    Conservatives want May to stop negotiating. Most people want her to keep trying.

    6) May’s deal vs new referendum
    A large majority of conservatives want the Brexit process to finish. A slim majority of all voters want a new referendum.

    7) Should cabinet ministers resign for not backing May?
    Conservatives overwhelmingly want them to resign. (No information given on anyone else.)

    8) Is Brexit deal more likely to go ahead if May promises to quit?
    I assume this means, will May’s deal will go ahead if she resigns. The question doesn’t make sense to me and judging from the responses possibly to no-one else either. No-one cares.

    9) Should May call a general election if her deal is defeated?
    Conservatives are in power. They want to stay in power. They don’t want an election. But surprisingly there is no great mood for an election. I’m guessing the voters are tired.

  8. Expat Follower @ #59 Thursday, March 21st, 2019 – 3:07 pm

    “How does the UK end up with a “softer Brexit” if the EU is unwilling to negotiate one?”

    this would be implicit in a long extension grant – the purpose of which being to negotiate a new basis other than May’s.

    without a long extension, its impossible

    But the EU has said many times that the current deal is “non-negotiable”, so what would be the point in the delay?

  9. Player One @ #62 Thursday, March 21st, 2019 – 2:18 pm

    Expat Follower @ #59 Thursday, March 21st, 2019 – 3:07 pm

    “How does the UK end up with a “softer Brexit” if the EU is unwilling to negotiate one?”

    this would be implicit in a long extension grant – the purpose of which being to negotiate a new basis other than May’s.

    without a long extension, its impossible

    But the EU has said many times that the current deal is “non-negotiable”, so what would be the point in the delay?

    The EU have also said that they would consider a longer delay if Britain were willing to try something new, such as a referendum. But perhaps the questions were clumsy or reduced to ambiguity by fitting them onto a graphic.

  10. Late Riser @ #63 Thursday, March 21st, 2019 – 3:23 pm

    The EU have also said that they would consider a longer delay if Britain were willing to try something new, such as a referendum. But perhaps the questions were clumsy or reduced to ambiguity by fitting them onto a graphic.

    Yes, but the question is how a delay would result in a softer deal, when the EU have repeatedly said there will be no further negotiation. Does Britain think they were lying about that?

  11. Player One

    AFAIK the EU have not said the current deal is not negotiable. What they said was more nuanced. They have said that unless the UK changes some of the parameters of its needs (the so-called “red lines”) there is no point continuing to negotiate. May’s deal is as good as it can be made under the constraints. “Change your constraints and then come back if you want to.”

    A short extension would only be offered to allow the UK to pass the necessary legislation to enable May’s deal. If the UK won’t approve May’s deal, there is no point in even a short extension.

    If the UK comes back to the EU with something new on the table, such as a general election or referendum the EU might agree to a longer extension. A softer Brexit by changing the red lines would likely be supported by the EU.

  12. Late Riser @ #66 Thursday, March 21st, 2019 – 3:42 pm

    AFAIK the EU have not said the current deal is not negotiable.

    Yes, they have – many times. Here is Macron saying it again just a few days ago …

    https://www.thelocal.fr/20190314/macron-says-brexit-withdrawal-deal-not-negotiable

    Britain’s Brexit divorce deal with the European Union is “not negotiable”, French President Emmanuel Macron said Wednesday, urging London to break an impasse over its looming exit from the bloc.

    “The withdrawal deal is not negotiable,” Macron told journalists on a trip to Kenya, adding that any request to delay Brexit would have to be justified.

    “We cannot renegotiate an accord that we negotiated over several months and which we have said is not renegotiable.”

    Seems pretty unequivocal to me. And several other EU leaders have also said much the same thing.

  13. Player One, I’m not sure we’re disagreeing. As you point out, Macron has said the accord is not negotiable.

    We cannot renegotiate an accord that we negotiated over several months and which we have said is not renegotiable.

    The reason though is that there is no point renegotiating. The EU are done hashing and rehashing. In that sense the current deal is not negotiable. But when I listen to the EU negotiators they add, wtte “However, if the UK comes back with substantial changes (something new) we might consider starting again.” So in that sense a new “softer” deal might still be possible. At least that is how I am interpreting all the words.

    But at this stage I think it’s academic. I doubt the UK will substantially change its “red lines”, so there will be a Hard Brexit on Saturday morning next week (AEST).

    Most of it is posturing now for a post-Brexit, which will be Hard. The EU will believe it kept the door open. The UK will believe the EU acted in bad faith. Fingers will point and hands will wring.

  14. https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-politics-47648565

    Worth a read for the simple information (who meets whom, why, when and where) and an analysis of public statements by Macron and Merkel.

    Based solely on this article (assuming therefore accuracy and completeness) I expect the EU to give May a conditional extension that will activate if the approved deal is accepted by her parliament. Given that the approved deal has already twice failed to pass, and the speaker forbade a third attempt I don’t see how it can happen.

    That leaves an extension in the hands of Corbin who is meeting with

    …the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, and the leaders of seven European countries to discuss alternatives to Mrs May’s Brexit plan.

    which he will somehow have to get through the UK parliament so the UK can ask for a different extension (maybe a long one), so the EU will have to hold another summit (this time an emergency summit), at which the EU may or may not agree.

    …before Friday.

    In fairness, I have read that the EU have already said they are prepared to hold an emergency summit if required, so it is possible that this is where they are focussing, having given up on May.

    tldr; 202 hours left. No-one knows.

  15. I do believe the map will work as per my post at the top of the page if May cant get her deal up next week. After her speech last night, looks less likely than it was anyway (Bercow also in the way)

    I am now reading that May, given a choice between asking for a long extension and no deal might not be bluffing and will end up caving to the right of her party and going no deal. My god, she might actually cripple her country to placate her party wingnuts…

    Am beginning to fear, even if a no confidence vote might pass just for a placeholder PM to ask for a long extension… this all has to happen between her vote failing or not coming to the floor and next Friday!

    This might not be procedurally possible in such a short timespan… in which its quite likely that May remains acting PM nxt Fri even if a vote of no confidence is passed beforehand.

    Im looking for a way that parliament can force the govt of the day to ask for a long extension… can they do it legislatively?

    If not then with May at the helm we are staring no deal?

    This could all be part of her tactical genius… convince the world it will be no deal unless remainers and softies go for her deal. But if that doesn’t work, id quietly assumed it was a bluff. But im not feeling great going all in on Theresa May not pushing the self-destruct button when it comes to the crunch…

    That level of discomfort on the remain/softie side is probably exactly what she is aiming for, though. I would say she is playing her (bad) hand optimally, though that antagonistic speech last night doesnt make a lot of sense.

    What could possibly go wrong….

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