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