Fate of Brexit still muddled after latest round of votes in Parliament
The U.K. government lost two significant votes this week, as Parliament rejected Prime Minister Theresa May’s withdrawal agreement and ruled out a no-deal Brexit. They also rejected some alternative proposals for resolving the crisis.
The big picture: The problem is that members of Parliament fall into four main groups on the Brexit issues, and none commands a majority.
What each group broadly supports:
- Leaving the EU without a deal
- Leaving the EU under May’s current agreement
- A “softer” departure that retains the closest possible trading links with the EU, minimizing damage to Britain’s economy (including the “Norway-plus” and “Common Market 2.0” plans)
- Remaining within the EU, especially if that’s the outcome supported by a new referendum (a small minority would simply revoke Britain’s application to leave the EU without putting a vote to the public)
Between the lines: A coalition of groups 3 and 4 could triumph, as a majority of MPs would prefer the kind of customs union or single market–style relationship the U.K. currently enjoys.
- Group 4 MPs, however, consider a “soft” Brexit ridiculous: It would leave the U.K. bound by EU rules but with no say in them.
What’s happening: Before March 29, May will have one or two more attempts to revive her withdrawal agreement, which has twice been voted down by large majorities. She hopes that the no-deal brigade will crack, convinced that leaving Europe trumps all other causes.
- If an extended deadline is sought, the pressure would shift to groups 3 and 4, but it’s far from clear they can agree on the fundamental choice: whether to uphold or challenge the sanctity of the 2016 referendum result.
- There is a narrow chance May could untie the knot herself, perhaps through a proposal from two Labour MPs to subject the withdrawal agreement to a “confirmatory vote”: If approved by the electorate, it would come into effect, perhaps one month after the public vote. If rejected, it would keep the U.K. in the EU.
What to watch: It’s still unclear if the EU will grant an extension — and, if it does, for how long and on what terms. And a second referendum would take months to organize, raising questions around whether the U.K. would participate in European Parliamentary elections later this year.
Be smart: Whatever fate Brexit meets, Britain’s reputation for competent, pragmatic political stability — built up over centuries — is being trashed. It will take years, perhaps decades, to restore.
Peter Kellner is a visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe.