Brexit dilemma and the view from May, Cor­byn and Cable streets

Michael Sav­age re­views the op­tions open to MPs and the prime min­is­ter af­ter her likely de­feat on Tues­day

The Observer - - News -

The speeches will have been made; the cab­i­net rows put on hold. The EU will have made a last-minute at­tempt to ap­pease scep­ti­cal MPs. On Tues­day evening, MPs are fi­nally due to troop through the vot­ing lob­bies to cast their judg­ment on Theresa May’s much-ma­ligned Brexit deal.

Even for the most re­bel­lious, it will come as a long over­due mo­ment of clar­ity. “The truth is, we need to de­cide one way or an­other whether or not we want the PM’s deal,” said one se­nior Tory rebel. “We’ve got to give a clear mes­sage about its ac­cept­abil­ity to par­lia­ment, or oth­er­wise, on Tues­day. I feel that any­thing else is a bit of a dis­trac­tion.”

Down­ing Street in­sid­ers are adamant that the vote, which has al­ready been de­layed once to avoid a heavy de­feat, will go ahead this time. Yet with the Brexit process de­scend­ing into the labyrinthine world of par­lia­men­tary pro­ce­dure, there is a twist or two left be­fore MPs take the plunge. Be­fore the key vote on Tues­day night, votes will also be held on amend­ments de­signed to re­shape May’s deal – some in ef­fect re­ject the agree­ment, even be­fore the proper vote on it has taken place.

Should May’s deal be re­jected as ex­pected, an even more un­pre­dictable phase of the Brexit bat­tle be­gins. So what could hap­pen then?

A no-con­fi­dence vote in the gov­ern­ment

There is al­ready a row go­ing on at the top of the Labour party about when or if it should call a vote of no-con­fi­dence in the gov­ern­ment once May’s deal is de­feated. Should Labour win it, the party would have the chance to try to form an­other gov­ern­ment – but in prac­tice, it would lead to an elec­tion. How­ever, Jeremy Cor­byn has ad­mit­ted that Labour is un­likely to win a con­fi­dence vote. Most of those push­ing for it to hap­pen im­me­di­ately know this – but want it out of the way so the party can take a step to­wards back­ing a sec­ond ref­er­en­dum. Whips have been telling MPs that a vote could be im­me­di­ate – rais­ing the hopes of those that want the party to back a sec­ond pub­lic vote.

Par­lia­ment takes back con­trol

Even in the past cou­ple of weeks, par­lia­ment and John Ber­cow, the speaker, have shown that they can as­sert them­selves on the Brexit process be­cause May’s gov­ern­ment has no ma­jor­ity. Lead­ing Tory rebels say they have a “legally cop­per-bot­tomed” plan to give par­lia­ment more con­trol of the Brexit ne­go­ti­a­tions af­ter Tues­day’s vote, but are keep­ing it close to their chests.

Cab­i­net min­is­ters are openly ag­i­tat­ing for par­lia­ment to seize fur­ther con­trol if May’s deal is de­feated. Their main aim is to hold a se­ries of in­dica­tive votes, show­ing what there is and is not a ma­jor­ity for. From no deal to Nor­way plus and no Brexit, all could be tested. Some also want to show there is al­ready a ma­jor­ity for de­lay­ing Brexit day by ex­tend­ing ar­ti­cle 50.

May heads back to Brus­sels

Once the vote has been de­feated, the prime min­is­ter will have to make a state­ment by next Mon­day about what she in­tends to do. Her most likely tac­tic will be to book yet an­other Eu­rostar ticket to Brus­sels in an at­tempt to se­cure fur­ther con­ces­sions from the EU on the Ir­ish back­stop – a mech­a­nism de­signed to en­sure the Ir­ish bor­der stays open af­ter Brexit, which Brex­iters say threat­ens to keep Bri­tain tied to the bloc. It is the part of May’s deal that is caus­ing the most con­cern to proBrexit Tory MPs.

May has failed to se­cure mean­ing­ful con­ces­sions on the back­stop so far. There are some hopes that af­ter a de­feat, Brus­sels may be more will­ing to con­sider some­thing more sub­stan­tial, but there are no guar­an­tees. May would then hold a sec­ond vote on her tweaked deal. Such an out­come be­comes more un­likely if her deal falls to a huge de­feat on Tues­day.

A cross-party com­pro­mise

With time run­ning out, there are now se­nior fig­ures try­ing to find a Brexit com­pro­mise that could at­tract enough cross-party sup­port to com­mand a Com­mons ma­jor­ity. There are also cab­i­net min­is­ters who are ready to urge May to shift to a softer Brexit, to at­tract enough Labour sup­port. May has spo­ken to the unions and of­fered guar­an­tees on en­vi­ron­men­tal pro­tec­tion and work­ers’ rights.

The ob­vi­ous shift, al­ready be­ing backed by some in the cab­i­net, is a move to a per­ma­nent cus­toms union with the EU.

That would stop Bri­tain sign­ing its own in­ter­na­tional trade deals, but it would help sort some of the bor­der and trade is­sues that con­cern many Labour MPs.

It may not at­tract front­bench Labour sup­port, but could se­cure enough Labour back­ing to work as a com­pro­mise. How­ever, May has shown no in­cli­na­tion to con­sider a cus­toms union, and such a move would lose her the sup­port of some of her Tory back­ers.

An­other elec­tion

Hav­ing al­ready failed to se­cure a ma­jor­ity in an elec­tion that she was pre­dicted to win de­ci­sively, May is un­likely to take the same risk again as a way of se­cur­ing her Brexit deal. While Cor­byn says he wants an elec­tion, he does not have the means of se­cur­ing one, while some in the shadow cab­i­net think the party is not prop­erly pre­pared.

The most likely way that an elec­tion could be called would be if a no-deal Brexit looked im­mi­nent. In that sce­nario, enough Tories may be so wor­ried that they would back a no-con­fi­dence mo­tion in the gov­ern­ment to avoid it, trig­ger­ing an elec­tion.

A sec­ond ref­er­en­dum

There is cur­rently no ma­jor­ity for a sec­ond ref­er­en­dum and both the Tory and Labour lead­er­ships are against one.

Yet if the par­lia­men­tary dead­lock can­not be bro­ken, more MPs from all sides may con­clude that the only way to re­solve the im­passe is to go back to the peo­ple.

That would un­leash a whole new se­ries of bat­tles. What would the ques­tion be? Would no deal be on the bal­lot paper? If such a move was forced on May, would she re­sign? What would Labour’s po­si­tion be in a ref­er­en­dum, given that it has promised to de­liver Brexit? Cue an­other mas­sive row.

Pho­to­graph by Asadour Guzelian

A full house at the Peo­ple’s Vote rally in Sh­effield yes­ter­day.

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