Brexit votes: A Quick Reaction

Yesterday's votes in the UK parliament changed nothing substantively and tell us nothing we didn't know already.

My initial reaction  to the outcome of yesterday's parliamentary debate in Westminster is that it tells us nothing we didn't know already, ie:

  1. The biggest single sticking point on the UK Prime Minister Theresa May's Brexit deal remains (understandably) the backstop. It is very unlikely that her deal could ever get parliamentary approval unless there are major changes to the related draft treaty.

  2. However, there is no clear indication of exactly how far those changes would have to go, up to and including scrapping it altogether for an amended deal to win majority support in the House of Commons.

  3. A majority of parliamentarians is opposed to a 'no deal' Brexit, at the same time as there is no apparent majority for any alternative and seemingly no majority to ask for an extension of Article 50 to try to reach agreement within the UK and with the EU on such. 

  4. The EU27's clearly restated position remains that it is not willing to reopen the draft treaty.

  5. Mrs May remains willing to cross any or all of there self-declared 'red lines' in her efforts to prevent her party from splitting irretrievably.

What can be reasonably imply from this? I suggest the following.

I. Mrs May is very unlikely to get anything out of Brussels (or Dublin) in the next two weeks, when she has to report back, which will result in changes to the Treaty which would win majority approval in the Commons.

II. Despite the vote against 'no deal' Brexit this remains the default position which will click in on 29 March failing further developments which prevent it from happening.

And what scenarios may be plausible from here on?

A. The EU27 may yet 'blink' on the backstop when we get right up to the 29 March deadline. They may even 'blink' sufficiently for the UK Parliament to vote in favour of whatever revised deal emerges. But what happened in Westminster yesterday could also be a ruse by the hard Brexiteers simply to push the UK closer to the 'clean break' they seem really to want, ie even if Mrs May were to win significant substantive amendments she may still fail to avert a 'no deal' Brexit despite yesterday's vote against such an outcome.

B. The EU27, justifiably concerned about populism across Europe and the integrity of the single market, may stick to its guns despite the probable economic consequences of a 'no deal' Brexit, possibly out of sheer fed-uppedness, possibly in the hope/belief that Westminster would 'blink'.

C. A Westminster 'blink' would probably involve sufficient Labour MPs defying a party whip (as a modest number did yesterday) to vote with moderate Tories for there to be a majority seeking an extension to A50, in the first instance.

D. Given the chaos in Westminster there is no guarantee that BX would agree to such an extension but I think it would probably be prepared to go to 1 July (ie the day before the new European Parliament is due to convene) as a 'last ditch'. Nevertheless, Mrs May was correct when she said in parliament last week that an extension of itself does not resolve anything.

The bottom line? I don't think yesterday's votes have substantively changed anything and/or removed any of the uncertainty from the table.

Alastair Newton