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 21, a European leaders’ summit was held. Leaders of the 27 EU nations, not including the UK, agreed to delay the date of Brexit until April 12 (originally March 29). If Theresa May’s deal passes the House of Commons, Brexit would be delayed until May 22 to allow necessary legislation to pass. European parliament elections will be held from May 23-26. If the UK were to participate in these elections, a longer extension could be given, but the UK must inform the European Commission of its intent to participate by April 12, hence the new deadline. On March 27, the Commons passed this Brexit extension by 441 votes to 105.
On March 25, the Commons passed an amendment that allowed parliament, rather than the government, to control the agenda, and set indicative Brexit votes. This amendment passed by 329 votes to 302, with 30 Conservative MPs rebelling, though eight Labour MPs also rebelled. However, an amendment that would have attempted to prevent a no-deal Brexit failed by 314 votes to 311. On March 27, a motion for more indicative votes on April 1 passed by 331 votes to 287.
All of the March 27 indicative votes were lost, but two came close to passing. Conservative MPs were given a free vote with Cabinet members told to abstain, while Labour MPs were whipped on most votes. A customs union proposal came closest, losing by 272 votes to 264, with abstentions from pro-Remain parties. An amendment that would require a confirmatory referendum on any deal failed by 295 votes to 268, with 27 Labour MPs rebelling. Another soft Brexit option failed by 283 votes to 188, a motion in favour of no-deal failed by 400 votes to 160, with Conservatives favouring no-deal by 157-94. An amendment that would revoke Brexit to avoid no-deal failed by 293 votes to 184, with Labour MPs favouring revocation by 111-22.
Commentator Stephen Bush says that, while the second referendum proposal had more Yes votes than any other proposal, it also had more No votes than any other proposal that would soften Brexit, showing that it is a polarising proposal. Had the second referendum proposal lost badly, it would be clear to pursue the customs union proposal, but a live second referendum option makes no-deal more likely as MPs may be unable to coalesce around any option.
What these votes show is that, while there is a large majority against a no-deal Brexit, there is no majority for an option that would prevent a no-deal. Unless a deal is approved by April 12, the UK would be required to participate in EU elections to obtain a further extension to Brexit. Participating in these elections is also unlikely to win Commons support, as it would effectively remove a Brexit guarantee, and the Conservatives would likely suffer the anger of betrayed Leave voters.
Under the Fixed Term Parliaments Act, the next election is not due until May 2022, but there are two ways to get an early election. One way is if two-thirds of the Commons votes for an early election (as happened before the June 2017 election when the Conservatives were deprived of their majority in a massive upset). An early election can also be held if there is a successful no-confidence vote, and no government can be formed in the next 14 days. The earliest an election can be held is April 25, taking it past the April 12 deadline. If the UK does not want a no-deal Brexit in the middle of the election campaign, it must agree to participate in EU elections first.
On March 27, May made a vague promise to resign if her deal was approved. The Conservative membership, which is pro-hard Leave, will choose between two candidates nominated by Conservative MPs if there is a leadership vacancy. This promise appears to have won over prominent hard Leave MPs Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg, who sniffed an opportunity to become PM. However, more moderate Conservatives do not want PM Johnson. May also made progress with hard Leavers by threatening them with a long extension and perhaps no Brexit if her deal is rejected again. The question is whether she follows through on that threat.
On March 29, the same day as the original Brexit date, the Commons rejected May’s deal for a third time by 344 votes to 286; the 58-vote margin was much reduced from 149 on March 12 and 230 on January 15. Conservative MPs voted for the deal by 277-34 (235-75 on March 12), but the ten Democratic Unionist Party MPs, who usually vote with the government, were opposed, and just five Labour MPs were in favour (three on March 12). This was a vote on the legally binding withdrawal agreement alone, and did not include the political declaration. By separating these documents, May got around Commons Speaker John Bercow’s disallowance of her deal being brought back.
In summary, May’s deal was defeated again, MPs will not be able to coalesce around a customs union because the second referendum option did unexpectedly well, a general election would require an unpopular extension to participate in EU elections, and concrete efforts to prevent a no-deal Brexit failed. Unless something is resolved within the next two weeks, a no-deal Brexit looms. More indicative votes will be held on April 1.