Much Ado About Everything No 29: Brexit - MV3 (Updated)

Procedural barriers to MV3 will likely fall away in the next 24 hours; but this does not mean the May deal will prevail.

The Speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow (pictured), has made it clear that he would reconsider his ruling of earlier this week not to allow a third 'meaningful vote' (MV3) on the May deal depending on "context and circumstances". Assuming that the outcome of Prime Minister Theresa May's petitioning of the EU27 at today's European Council meeting is more or less in line with what European Council President Donald Tusk said at his press conference late yesterday afternoon (not a given but certainly a strong probability), my personal view is that the government would then have a compelling case to argue on the basis that "context and circumstance" had changed sufficiently, ie that if Mrs May's deal is not approved by Westminster early next week a no-deal Brexit on 29 March would be very hard to avoid.

Whether Mr Bercow has allowed his alleged opposition to Brexit to interfere in his rulings on process over this issue or not (as some, including in the government, believe), it is a reasonable assumption that he would be very susceptible to clear majority opposition in the House to such an outcome.

In other words, assuming that Mrs May does indeed come back from Brussels with a conditional extension until 30 June, I think there will no longer be any insurmountable procedural barriers to holding an MV3 early next week.

However, it remains the case today that Mrs May simply does not have the votes on her side of the House (including the DUP) to secure the majority she needs; and it is equally clear that Mr Tusk's words to the press yesterday have encouraged a significant number of the so called 'ultras' in her own party, sensing that a 29 March (no-deal) Brexit is now within their grasp, to dig in even deeper.

So, one (or more) additional thing has to shift if a 29 March no-deal Brexit is to be avoided, ie:

  • The EU27 has to offer, either this week or early-ish next, an unconditional extension of Article 50 to the UK (which some would, understandable, argue is doing little more than kicking the can down the road); or,
  • Mrs May has to persuade the DUP and (I would say) at least 20 and possibly many more opposition MPs to vote for her deal to overcome the nay-sayers in her own party ranks; or,
  • A majority of parliamentarians has to back an alternative Brexit strategy which would persuade the EU27 to agree to an extension; or,
  • The UK has unilaterally to revoke Article 50 (which most legal experts believe does not require EU approval), the procedure for which is not clear to me ie would it require a parliamentary vote, which I think likely, or could the government just do it in the seemingly unlikely event that Mrs May could secure cabinet approval?

Update: 22 March

It took a long time to emerge in Brussels last night, certainly longer than the original European Council agenda had allowed for; but, in the end, the leaders of the EU27 did one of the things they do best, ie they came up with a compromise!

What was pretty clear from early on in their debate was that Mrs May's 30 June request was a non-starter, thanks in part to what is being widely reported as her weak personal performance at the meeting but mainly because of legal concerns first raised by the European Commission a few weeks ago about the legitimacy of the upcoming European Parliament elections if the UK was still an EU member when they are held but did not participate. This concern is the foundation upon which the compromise is based, with the result that:

  • If Mrs May can persuade the Speaker to allow a third 'meaningful vote' on her deal next week AND secure majority support for it, the extension granted to the UK will run until 22 May, ie the day before the elections commence;
  • But if she cannot do both those things, the UK has only until 12 April to come up with an alternative plan approved by parliament (and which would then have to be approved by the EU27), thereby opening the door to a (potentially much) longer extension (12 April being the last date by which it would have to legislate accordingly if it wishes to participate in the European elections).

At his joint press conference with European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, Mr Tusk summed it up thus:

"Until... [April 12], all options will remain open and the cliff-edge date will be delayed. The UK government will still have a choice between a deal, no-deal, a long extension or revoking Article 50".

That "all options will remain open" and that, therefore, a massive degree of uncertainty persists, it is still possible to consider how events could unfold over the course of the next seven days, as follows

  • Monday 25 March: A cross-party amendment has already been laid for debate on the 25th which is aimed at (finally) giving MPs an indicative vote on the way forward.
  • Tuesday 26 March: Mrs May clearly remains determined to hold her MV3 and I think the Speaker will probably allow her to do so. But the parliamentary numbers appear to remain stacked against her, especially after her attempt on 20 March to hold parliament responsible for the continuing parliamentary impasse which has gone down very badly with MPs.
  • 27-29 March: Whether she secures a parliamentary majority for her deal of not, towards the end of the week both Houses will, presumably, be asked to approve legislation which would delay Brexit until either 12 April (ie if she is defeated for a third time) or 22 May (ie if she finally does get her deal through). Although the ultras will likely vote against the extension there should still be a big majority in favour in both Houses.

Assuming Mrs May's deal is not approved next week (which does NOT necessarily mean that she will not try yet again between 29 March and 12 April!), what happens thereafter is much harder to predict, as follows:

  • The ultras will clearly be hoping that parliament remains as divided on alternative ways forward as it has been to date, resulting in a no-deal Brexit on 12 April;
  • Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn will no doubt push hard to try to secure a parliamentary majority in favour of the UK entering into a customs union with the EU;
  • Others will continue to argue in favour of a softer Brexit still;
  • And support for a second referendum, which could include a 'remain' option (albeit with no guarantee that this would be the outcome), will likely swell.

Amid all this, the Conservatives may force Mrs May out of office (even though they cannot hold another formal vote of confidence in her leadership until December); and/or the government as a whole could be brought down by a vote of no confidence in the House, opening the door to a general election.

No wonder sterling took another beating yesterday!

Update: 23 March

To judge from the letter she sent to all MPs yesterday evening, Theresa May has given up on trying to get her deal through parliament - at least for now. I add this qualification since she may yet come back to it if no Commons majority emerges for an alternative in the coming days and the House is again faced with the stark choice of backing her deal or presiding over a no-deal Brexit on 12 April (assuming, that is, that the leaders of the EU27 hold firm on what they agreed two days ago). Even then, though, it seems very unlikely that she could secure the backing of the DUP which many see as a prerequisite to her having any chance of securing a majority.

However, a great deal of - currently still very murky - water will flow under Westminster Bridge between now and then.

The one seemingly fixed point is that, as I noted yesterday, on Monday 25 March the House will vote on an amendment proposed by a cross-party group led by former Conservative minister Sir Oliver Letwin which would allow MPs to take control of the order paper for Wednesday 27 March and vote indicatively on a series of Brexit options. According to the BBC these include (in addition, possibly, to the May deal as it stands) the following:

  • Revoking Article 50 and cancelling Brexit;
  • Another referendum;
  • The PM's deal plus a customs union;
  • The PM's deal plus both a customs union and single market access;
  • A Canada-style free trade agreement; and,
  • Leaving the EU without a deal.

A similar amendment formally proposed by Sir Oliver's co-lead, former Labour minister Hilary Benn, failed by just two votes earlier this month.

Sir Oliver reportedly supports asking MPs to vote on each option in its own right in the first instance at least. However, the de facto Deputy Prime Minister David Lidington is said to favour adoption of an alternative vote system. However, he may well not have been speaking with the backing of the cabinet as a whole which appears to remain deeply divided over how to test alternative Brexit options.

Meanwhile, today will see what promises to be a very well attended pro-"Put it to the People" rally in London, adding to the public pressure which some believe to be exerted by a petition (on the UK Government website) calling for the cancellation of Brexit which has attracted over three million signatures over the past three days or so. Frankly, I doubt that either of these will have much, if any, impact on the cabinet. But it is nevertheless interesting that Labour's Deputy Leader Tom Watson is to speak in favour of a second referendum (which is not Jeremy Corbyn's position) at the rally, which just might be indicative of a big move next week, on the opposition benches at least in this direction.

Alastair Newton