The Latest on Brexit from our Public Affairs team

Top-Line Summary

  • Today marks a crucial milestone in the Brexit process – the postponed meaningful vote on Theresa May’s Brexit deal will take place this evening, with the result expected around 8:15PM.
  • Given the parliamentary arithmetic, it remains highly unlikely that the deal will pass; currently, predictions for the defeat range between 100 to 200 votes.
  • In the event of a defeat it is likely that the Government will face a vote of no confidence tabled by a Labour Party focused on securing an early General Election.
  • In the days following a defeat, it is likely that Parliament will be asked to express its view on what it is “for” not just against. This may take the form of a series of indicative votes on other options including no deal, Canada+, EEA membership and a permanent customs union/ single market membership. By ruling out other options, the PM will hope to be able to reframe her deal as a sensible ‘middle option’, that avoids the risks of no deal, whilst honouring the referendum result. If the Government does not take the initiative in shaping this process it is likely that Parliament will seek to seize control.


Political Developments Overnight

Theresa May makes the case for her deal

  • In the run up to the vote, the Prime Minister has warned that ‘no Brexit’ is a more likely scenario than ‘no deal’ if MPs vote down her proposal, in the hope of persuading risk-averse Brexiteers to back the deal.
  • Yesterday Theresa May released a joint letter from Donald Tusk and Jean-Claude Juncker, which stresses that the EU does not intent to trigger the backstop and the mechanism will only be used if necessary. However, this letter offers no new assurances from the EU, and has therefore had limited impact, including with the DUP.
  • Theresa May addressed the 1922 Committee yesterday evening in an attempt to secure votes from backbench MPs. It was widely reported that her performance fell “flat” and had failed to shift any wavering MPs. She is due to address parliamentarians again tonight before the vote.

Benn Withdraws Amendment

  • Brexit Committee Chairman Hilary Benn has bowed to pressure from Labour colleagues and pulled his amendment designed to kill off both May’s deal and the threat of a no-deal Brexit, for fear it would have won by a narrow margin, which would have blocked May’s deal before it even got to the main vote.
  • His decision to drop the plan therefore bolsters the chances of an outright vote on May’s deal this evening and for MPs to express the scale of their opposition.

Murrison’s Backstop Amendment gains support

  • A number of Conservative MPs had backed a separate amendment tabled by backbencher Andrew Murrison that was designed to soften the Irish backstop.
  • Murrison, Chairman of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, had called for a “sunset clause” to the Irish backstop, or expiry date of December 31st 2021.
  • This could conceivably have limited the scale of defeat this evening for May’s deal and strengthen the Prime Minister’s negotiating hand with Brussels. However, Speaker John Bercow did not select the amendment for debate.

House of Lords Expresses its Views

  • Earlier in the evening, the House of Lords rejected the Government’s deal in a largely symbolic vote, with Peers inflicting a defeat by 321 to 152.

Government Whip resigns with further resignations possible

  • Conservative whip, Gareth Johnson, resigned on Monday in order to oppose the deal. Whilst this has largely gone under the radar, losing a whip – supposedly the most loyal group of MPs – is a real blow for Theresa May.
  • The Government is braced for further payroll resignations ahead of this evening’s vote. Though no significant departures are expected.


Predicting the Outcome of the Vote

Likelihood of defeat

  • Our analysis indicates a possible Government defeat by as much as 200 votes. This would represent the largest defeat inflicted on a Government since the first Labour Government in 1924.

What happens next?

If, as expected, the Government is defeated this evening, what happens then?

 May responds immediately

  • The Prime Minister will likely make a short statement after tonight’s vote, recognising the views and concerns expressed by MPs. She will aim to set out a way forward that leaves her in control of the agenda. This will either be an interpretation of the result and a commitment to take the message of parliament back to Brussels, or an invitation to parliament to express what it is for during the remainder of this week.

 Labour tables a Vote of Confidence

  • Jeremy Corbyn is expected to call a vote of confidence via a point of order tonight, immediately after the defeat, with a motion expected to be debated and voted after PMQs tomorrow.
  • Under the Fixed Term Parliament Act, a General Election is only triggered if a Confidence motion is passed with a two-thirds majority. In the case of a simple majority, under the two-thirds threshold the Government would have a 14-day period to return to the House and win a second confidence vote.
  • The DUP’s position in a vote of confidence will therefore be critical. Do they back the Government to avoid an election, which might put Labour into power? Or do they abstain or vote with the Opposition to give themselves a defined negotiation period to finally kill the backstop.

Parliament “takes back control”

  • Due to the ‘Grieve Amendment’ passed by the House of Commons last week, the Government will be forced to table a motion in the House of Commons within 3 sitting days.
  • We anticipate the Government will put in place a process enabling MPs to take a view on the way forward, including setting out their views on a series of potential options.

There may be a series of rolling votes on the following alternatives:

  • No-deal – this is likely to be included to rule it out as a proactive policy (this of course would not rule out a no-deal as the consequence of departing the EU on March 29th with no alternative agreement).
  • ‘Canada plus’ – this would be unlikely to pass due to it not being palatable to Remainers, and such a deal would also be unpopular with some pro-Brexit MPs given that it would still include a backstop.
  • The Norway Model – a compromise favoured by soft Brexiteers such as Conservatives Nick Boles and Nicky Morgan, which would keep the UK within the single-market. Continued free movement of people would not be acceptable however to other Brexiteers (a key red-line for Eurosceptics).
  • Second Referendum –  this too is unlikely to be a viable option until all other routes forward have been exhausted, and Labour backs one. Despite growing calls for a second vote, Theresa May has consistently said that she is not in favour of a second vote.

As it stands, none of these options are likely to command a majority, but the parliamentary arithmetic will likely change once the Government deal has been defeated, and even more so if Labour MPs are freed from their priority for a General Election by the defeat of a confidence motion.

Once all alternative options have been exhausted, it would arguably be easier for the Prime Minister to frame her deal as the “only deal” on the table, and to present a binary choice to Parliament between her agreement and no deal.

Extension to Article 50

Finally, Parliament may choose to extend Article 50 as the Government is likely to have little time to implement the required legislation. Politically, the Prime Minister’s position with her own party would be untenable if Article 50 was extended.

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