Uncertainty reigns: What next after the PM’s second Brexit defeat?

Two years ago we first heard Theresa May utter the phrase ‘nothing has changed’, and it is perhaps the most accurate evaluation of what has unfolded in Westminster in the last 24 hours. The prime minister’s virtually unchanged Brexit deal went down to a virtually unchanged result: a triple-digit defeat in the House of Commons. For a second time, MPs have rejected the Brexit deal by a majority of 149. With just 16 days until the UK is scheduled to leave the EU, the question of how we leave remains wide open.

No deal or extension?

MPs will vote this evening on whether they would countenance leaving the EU without a deal on 29 March. If MPs vote against this outcome, a further vote will be held on Thursday on whether to instruct the PM to seek an extension to Article 50.

As ever, the amendments to these motions will be crucial. Downing Street has already confirmed it will allow Conservative MPs a free vote on the no-deal motion and on the so-called ‘Malthouse compromise’ put forward by a coalition of Tory MPs. While such amendments are not binding, they could, if successful, have great political force in influencing the government’s approach.

An extension to Article 50 would require the approval of all 27 EU member states. This is far from guaranteed, with some countries demanding a rationale for extension. For many commentators, parliament’s gridlock is so entrenched that any extension only delays the inevitable. Furthermore, there is nervousness on both sides over the prospect of the UK still being a member of the EU by the time of the next round of EU parliament elections in May. If the EU does, as expected, grant an extension, it is likely to last no longer than three months. What happens at the end of that extension remains all to play for – here’s a run down (in no order) of the options.

Option 1: a third meaningful vote

The simplest (and perhaps likeliest) course of action is that Theresa May has one last go at getting her much-maligned deal through the House of Commons. This could even happen before 29 March, presumably after the sitting of the EU summit scheduled for 21–22 March.

MPs could be asked to choose between backing the deal with a short delay or rejecting it and facing a longer extension or no deal. It remains possible that MPs may choose to back the prime minister’s deal for fear of the possibility of a no-deal scenario.

Given the scale of last night’s defeat, any such vote is bound to be incredibly fractious, particularly as the EU has confirmed it is not willing to negotiate any further. If the deal is passed, legislation would be introduced to enact it with a new Brexit date.

Option 2: renegotiation

It has become clear that MPs are not prepared to support the government’s Brexit proposals. It is possible, therefore, that the government seeks to negotiate a completely new Brexit deal. It could seek to build an official cross-party consensus, it could hold indicative votes to gauge the will of parliament, or it could choose its own path forward. As this would involve a wholesale rethink and a pivot towards another model, such as the Norway or Canada deals, this would take some time (assuming that the EU is willing to re-enter negotiations).

Option 3: a ‘people’s vote’

A second referendum has been part of the discussion for a while now, but remains relatively unlikely. As per the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000, new legislation would have to be brought forward to determine the rules of such a referendum such as who would be allowed to vote, the question put to the people and whether it would be binding or advisory. Experts at UCL’s Constitution Unit suggest that the minimum time required for a referendum to take place is 22 weeks, well past any short extension the EU is likely to offer. Furthermore, there still appears to be no parliamentary majority for this.

Option 4: a general election

A fresh election may be one route for Theresa May to gain a political mandate for her deal. Under the Fixed Term Parliament Act, two thirds of MPs must back a general election, after which a minimum of 25 working days is required until polling day. With both parties deeply divided and all polling pointing towards a similar result to the general election of 2017, many believe that a general election would do nothing to bring certainty to the country’s political difficulties.

Option 5: no Brexit or Theresa May’s resignation

Many MPs on both sides of the house have called for the prime minister to resign. After she survived a no confidence vote within her own party earlier this year, Conservative Party rules state that such a vote cannot take place for another year. However, she may eventually decide to resign if she is unable to pass her deal and is not willing to change course. Equally, the European Court of Justice has ruled that it would be legal for the UK to unilaterally revoke Article 50 and cancel Brexit entirely. There is nothing to suggest that there is any possibility of either of these eventualities in the short-term.

Option 6: no deal at a later date

Last night’s vote brought the UK closer to the possibility of a no-deal Brexit. Tonight’s vote on no deal has no legal effect: the only way for the UK to avoid a no-deal Brexit is to pass a withdrawal agreement or to revoke Article 50. Extension does not avert no-deal, it merely postpones the moment that the UK reaches that particular cliff-edge. For all the talk of ‘taking no deal off the table’ in parliament, the fact remains that none of the MPs who have brought legislation forward to ‘stop no deal’ have done anything remotely close to that. The only legislation that could achieve this would have to dictate that in the event no accord has been ratified by 29 March (or the end of any extension), Article 50 is to be revoked. As such, if Brexit is going to take place with a deal, parliament must build a consensus around an alternative way forward.

However, one remaining point of consensus at Westminster is that, although no deal would be a disaster, someone else – whether it be another party or another faction within that party – will be the one to take political damage to prevent a no-deal Brexit. That consensus is the reason why no deal remains a real and live possibility.

NCVO has publicly stated the dangers of a no-deal Brexit, and with 16 days to go until our scheduled departure date, we urge politicians to act in the national interest and find a way to achieve a Brexit deal.

Useful resources for charities

The ongoing uncertainty around Brexit will continue to provide challenges to charities. NCVO has produced practical guidance for charities that we hope will assist you in preparing for the coming change and the uncertain environment. Here’s a list of useful resources.

Keep an eye out for NCVO’s Brexit explainers, due to be published shortly.


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Ben Westerman is a senior external relations officer at NCVO, leading on Brexit work.

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