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 18, House of Commons Speaker John Bercow announced that he would not allow a third vote on Theresa May’s Brexit deal without substantial changes, citing a rule dating back to 1604 that says that the Commons cannot re-consider something in its current session once it has been decided. A session is normally one year, but the current session is two years, expiring in June 2019.
While Bercow’s intervention was dramatic, there is a fairly simple workaround. A “paving motion” could be used to state that the Commons wants another vote on the deal. If there were a majority for the paving motion, there would be another vote on the deal. May’s problem is not Bercow, it is that she does not have a majority for her deal. May would have hoped that the Democratic Unionist Party and hard Conservative Leavers would fall in line under the threat of a long extension to Brexit, but this has not occurred in sufficient numbers to change the result of the 149-vote loss at the March 12 division on May’s deal.
On March 21-22, the European leaders’ summit will be held. It had been suggested that May would ask for a short extension, conditional on passing her deal by mid-April, when the UK will need to commit to holding European parliamentary elections from May 23-26. If May cannot pass her deal by mid-April, a long extension would be required.
Instead of asking for a long delay, on March 20 May asked for a delay only until June 30, regardless of whether her deal is passed. The UK would not participate in the EU elections, so it would cease to be an EU member when the new EU parliament first sits on July 1. However, European Council President Donald Tusk said the EU would only back a short delay if May’s deal passes – a delay needs the unanimous support of all 27 EU nations.
Late on March 20 UK time, May gave a speech in which she said that the public should blame MPs, not her, for any Brexit delay. May has been under pressure from hard Leave Conservative MPs. But by blaming MPs, she makes it more likely that her deal will be rejected again if put to a vote next week. In summary, the events of March 20 make a no-deal Brexit more likely at 11pm March 29 UK time (10am March 30 Australian Eastern Daylight Time).
I think a long Brexit extension would be seen as a far greater betrayal of Leave voters than other options such as a softer Brexit with a customs union. For the last two years, people have been told that March 29 is the day the UK leaves the EU. Many Leave voters will not care very much about the type of Brexit, but they will care a great deal about honouring the March 29 exit date. If the UK took part in European elections, there would be no guarantee of any Brexit.
On March 14, the Commons passed a motion that would extend Brexit. A Survation poll taken March 15 gave Labour a four-point lead over the Conservatives, the first Labour lead in any UK poll since January 30. Two YouGov polls for different clients, both conducted March 14-15, had the Conservatives ahead by two to four points; however, the Conservative vote in both polls was down five since the last YouGov poll in early March. I believe Labour dropped in the polls as they became perceived as an anti-Brexit party. The Conservatives would be likely to suffer greater damage than Labour from such a perception as Leave voters make up a far larger part of their vote.
An overlooked reason for why the Conservative vote has held up well despite Brexit chaos is the economy. On March 19, the November to January jobs report was released. It showed that 76.1% of those aged 16 to 64 had a job, a record high. The unemployment rate was just 3.9% (lowest since 1975), and inflation-adjusted weekly wages grew 1.4% over the year to January. As long as these great jobs figures continue, the Conservatives have a good chance to win the next election despite Brexit. A big question is whether the economy tanks if there is a no-deal Brexit.