This has, on the face of it, been an extraordinary few days in the unfolding story of Brexit. First, Prime Minister Theresa May delays the parliamentary vote on the withdrawal in the face of certain defeat. This lead to a leadership challenge from the right-wing of the party, who hoped to replace her with a more stringent Brexit candidate. May has won the no-confidence vote within her party, but has been weakened by the size of the rebellion against her, with a third of her own MPs voting to replace her. However, despite the high drama and the furious scenes within Westminster little has changed on the key issues and possibilities concerning Brexit.
A general election remains a possibility since the 117 Tory MPs who voted against her would be more than enough to shift the balance against her in a Parliament-wide vote of no confidence against the government. However, it is by no means certain that they would actually vote to bring down the government. Furthermore, Parliament would have 14 days to reform a new government, either from within the Tory party or as some sort of government of national unity, thereby preventing a full election from taking place.
The Labour party claim to want a general election, with the goal of forming a new government and then negotiating a better deal with the EU. However, there is little reason to expect them to get such a deal, with European leaders being clear that they consider the withdrawal agreement finalized. Just today the German Bundestag has agreed to oppose renegotiation of the Brexit deal. One possibility is that Labour could opt for a much softer, Norway-style agreement. This may be attractive to the EU however senior Norwegian politicians have rejected the idea that the UK could join their trading block. It is also unclear how much support such a deal would have among the British public.
So as things stand May will try to guide her deal through Parliament by winning some concession from the EU. The EU may even have planned for such kabuki theatre, holding back some symbolic concessions to allow May to better sell the deal to Parliament. However, this gambit failed for Cameron and will likely fail for May. This is because the most contentious issue is the Irish backstop, which the EU has been clear cannot be renegotiated. Indeed, the position of the Republic of Ireland means it is impossible for any significant change to be made to this unpopular temporary solution to the Irish border question.
This is the key stumbling block for May. No concession short of hugely reforming the backstop will placate either her Northern Irish allies in the Democratic Unionist Party or the extreme pro-Brexit rebels in her own party. As things stand her deal will therefore almost certainly fail, no matter how long she delays. This leaves two possibilities; no deal or no Brexit
Although May will use the threat of no deal to browbeat the British Parliament into supporting her, in practice, it is incredibly unlikely to happen. Firstly, avoiding a disastrous no deal exit is the only scenario which can definitely command a sizeable majority in Parliament. The Grieve amendment ensures that a no deal scenario would have to be accepted by MPs, so it is almost impossible. This protection against no deal has been strengthened by the court case in Edinburgh and advice from the European courts, which suggests that the UK can unilaterally cancel article 50.
So, this leaves to a possibility of canceling Brexit. While Parliament can cancel it without going back to the people, especially in the case of a possible no deal, in practice a second referendum would be the only way of establishing legitimacy. The longer the deadlock goes on the more likely this becomes, although all options are on the table and the outcome of the vote is far from guaranteed.
Despite the theatrics within British domestic politics, the structural issues facing Brexit remain broadly the same as three weeks ago. No deal is unlikely, May’s deal is too unpopular to pass and the Labour Party remains unable to articulate an actionable policy. This means that the momentum behind the People’s Vote movement will build, although the outcome from this remains difficult to predict.
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About the authors
Daniel Odin Shaw is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Glasgow, focusing primarily on non-state actors and conflict resolution as well as extremist political movements. He has been published in Ms. Magazine Online, The Monthly Review and Global Politics.co.uk. He tweets at @DanielOdinShaw