22 Mar 2019

Brexit: Where Next?

At his end of summit press conference in Brussels, France’s President Macron has been explaining why he didn’t want an “crisis summit next week” as it could land the EU with “responsibility” for a No Deal Brexit and the EU27 would’ve lost the “blame game”.

Instead the EU has told Theresa May to put her deal to the test again next week and it has then created a two week space for parliament to see if it can come with an alternative approach.

But President Macron’s words indicate that No Deal is now such a serious prospect that it is governing his thinking about the choreography. One Cabinet minister told me that the offer from the EU yesterday amounted to a “ramp” to take some of the shock off a No Deal Brexit to get everyone better prepared. The window it created for other possible Brexit outcomes was, the minister suggested, one the EU knew might not yield results.

There’s strong speculation that the government might want to hold its Meaningful Vote on Thursday (the date has jigged around in grids) which looks like being the day after MPs have had the chance to t vote on alternatives to the Prime Minister’s deal (like revoking Article 50, maybe even the Second Referendum) but also to put flesh on what the future relationship should look like (expected to be dominated by softer Brexit options like full membership of the Customs Union and “Common Market 2.0”).

The government is offering to organise that but I think opposition parties, after the experience of the government running votes on “no deal” and the extension, is keen to run this itself if it can. That means the Letwin/Boles/Cooper exercise in wresting control of a day (Wednesday) off the government to run its own show looks like it will be tested on Monday and will probably succeed.

How might Wednesday actually go?

Much of that depends on the voting system adopted. If you just trial the different options one by one then its possible none will get a majority. Some are pushing a run-off approach to overcome this: the bottom one is eradicated and you eventually get to run off between the two top ones.

Much also depends on whether Labour supporters of a second referendum are ready to cave, give up on their dream and compromise on a form of a Brexit they heartily dread.

Much could depend on whether there are many Tory MPs ready to defy the will of their activists. Recent votes suggest some are finding it hard to defy the will of associations who are often passionately pro the idea of a more distant relationship with the EU . This happens to be the season of Association AGM’s when some face tough encounters.

By coincidence, Tuesday could see Labour’s NEC kick off the re-selection process for its MPs. Pressure on some of them from fervent pro-Remain activists could work the other way and keep them solid with the Second Referendum cause and unwilling to back a softer kind of Brexit. But Jeremy Corbyn could ask them to back his version of a softer Brexit, discussed on various trips to Brussels with senior EU officials.

If the government does pick Thursday for its Meaningful Vote III that might be a clue to how they think Wednesday is going to go. Some in government and some who support the “indicative votes” exercise as it is called think there’s a decent chance it doesn’t come to a clear conclusion and could even sink into farce. That could be the moment that the Second Referendum campaign deploys the Kyle/Wilson amendment which promises support for Theresa May’s deal as long as she agrees to subject it to a referendum when it would be up against “Remain.”

What would happen if any of these alternatives to the Meaningful Vote actually passed? Would Theresa May undertake to implement the will of the Commons? Would Tory MPs let her do anything of the sort? The PM appeared to be signalling in her late night Brussels press conference that she could implement alternatives but wouldn’t implement a revocation of Article 50. Only the day before she told the Commons that she wouldn’t do anything that involved a long extension of Article 50.

Tory MPs who think Theresa May is long for her current job seem to be in extremely thin supply. Many say they expect that she will have to give a commitment to leave office in the days ahead.

It could happen on a day when, like David Cameron’s departure from office after the EU Referendum result in 2016, events are so momentous it is pushed to second story in the headlines.

Tweets by @garygibbonblog