Much Ado About Everything No 30: Brexit — Into Overtime

Another 'crucial' Brexit week ahead with no clear idea of where things will stand at the end of it.

As the Brexit process moves into the ‘extra time’ granted to the UK by the EU27 on 21 March, yet again we find ourselves at the start of a 'crucial' week where almost nothing is certain.

What we do know is that the House of Commons will, for the second time, conduct ‘indicative votes’ on a range of Brexit-related options today following the inconclusive round of 27 March.

Nine options have been put forward (compared to ‘just’ eight last week). But it is up to the Speaker of the House, John Bercow, to determine which are put to a vote. The debate is expected to start in mid-afternoon and will conclude at 1900GMT (2000BST). The expectation is that MPs will then be asked to vote independently on each option which the Speaker has approved (as opposed to an alternative transferable vote approach preferred by some MPs), ie a separate ballot paper for each with MPs permitted to vote ‘aye’ or ‘no’ (or abstain) on as many as they wish. This process should take 30 minutes, with the subsequent count likely to require around two hours to judge from last week.

In short, we should know the outcome at around 2130GMT.

Two options are again expected to enjoy particularly significant support, ie:

  • The inclusion in any Brexit deal of a “permanent and comprehensive UK-wide customs union with the EU”, as proposed last week by veteran Conservative Europhile Ken Clarke (For 264, Against 272 on 27 March); and,
  • A “confirmatory public vote” (ie second referendum) on any deal approved by Parliament, as proposed by Labour veteran Margaret Beckett last week (For 268, Against 295).

On the other hand, if a no-deal Brexit is again among the options expect it to be heavily defeated (For 160, Against 400 on 27 March) even though it remains the default position on 12 April in the event of Britain’s failing to come up with an alternative acceptable to the EU27 — among whom there does appear to be at least some support for getting the whole sorry saga over and allowing the UK to crash out without a deal.

Keep in mind that even if one of the available options (or, possibly, more than one) secures a majority of ‘ayes’, the government is not bound by it. But failure to bend to ‘the will of Parliament’ in such circumstances would probably lead to an attempt by parliamentarians to pass a law to force the government to do its bidding. On the other hand, if Mrs May were to agree to go to Brussels to propose a softer Brexit to the EU27 (presumably at the emergency Council meeting set for 10 April) it would likely immediately trigger wholesale cabinet resignations and even, quite possibly, the formal split of the Conservative Party

However, assuming that, once again, none of the options under consideration wins majority support, it appears likely that there will be a third indicative vote on Wednesday 3 April.

Furthermore, Prime Minister Theresa May appears minded to have a fourth attempt at getting her deal through Parliament despite its suffering another heavy (albeit much less so) defeat on 29 March. The possibility of success cannot be ruled out, especially if the Northern Irish DUP, on which Mrs May depends for her majority, can be persuaded that the alternative was likely to be a Labour government led by the staunchly pro-Irish Republican Jeremy Corbyn.

Meanwhile, talk in the corridors about the possibility of Mrs May calling a snap general election (assuming, that is, that her own Party doesn't oust her toforce a leadership contest) is becoming increasingly fevered. And the Labour Party may call a vote of no confidence in the government even though there is no guarantee it would be carried; or, if it were and the government fell, that Labour would secure sufficient seats in the subsequent general election to allow it to take power.

And the bottom line? It remains the case, in my view, that anyone who claims they know how this will end up is either seriously deluded or just plain lying!

Alastair Newton