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- Theresa May’s Brexit deal has been defeated for a second time.
- The defeat means May will now hold a series of votes on leaving the EU without a deal, or delaying Brexit.
- Any delay would allow MPs to take control of Brexit.
- MPs are pushing for a softer Brexit or a second EU referendum.
LONDON — Theresa May’s Brexit deal suffered another landslide defeat on Tuesday after MPs voted to reject it by 391 votes to 242.
The margin of defeat is ominous for the prime minister, who appears to have very few viable options left. So what will happen next?
The prime minister has committed to holding two key votes this week. The first, on Wednesday, will ask whether MPs support a no-deal Brexit. The second, on Thursday, will ask them whether they wish to delay Brexit by extending Article 50.
A majority of MPs have already voted to express opposition to no deal, and parliament will likely express its opposition again on Wednesday.
The more significant question is what happens on Thursday. If parliament votes for an Article 50 extension, May will be forced to request one in Brussels, a move which will be deeply unpopular with her own party.
Here are a few outcomes that could follow…
1. A softer Brexit
Dinendra Haria/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images
Remain-supporting MPs are planning to table an amendment to Thursday’s motion which, if passed, would force the government to hold a series of indicative votes in parliament on possible Brexit outcomes, including a second referendum, a no-deal exit, and single market membership.
That would put May in a very difficult position because there is a potential parliamentary majority for a deal which involves a permanent customs union membership of the kind the Labour party has backed. The support would likely comprise a rump of Tory MPs and most Labour MPs, but Theresa May is firmly opposed to such a policy.
If parliament has, by Thursday, expressed its support for a softer Brexit, May would find it very difficult to ignore. At that point, parliament would have much greater influence over the next stages of proceedings.
It is possible in such an outcome that the prime minister could be compelled to negotiate for a deal involving customs union membership, something that would likely require an extension of a couple of months.
The agreement between the EU and UK published on Monday stipulated that the UK would have to put forward MEPs for election if it remained failed to leave the EU before May 23, so that may be the cut-off date for a brief extension during which the prime minister would attempt to negotiate a new, softer deal.
2. A no-deal Brexit
Reuters / Simon DawsonThe prospect of a no-deal Brexit is not, by any means, off the table. The default legal position is that the UK will leave the EU, deal or no deal on March 29, and it could still happen if the prime minister manoeuvres to engineer such an outcome and if parliament fails to coalesce around an alternative strategy.
It could happen for the simple reason that even extending Article 50 does not remove the possibility of a no-deal exit. Even if parliament votes to force Theresa May to ask the EU for an Article 50 extension, she could simply ask for a delay of a few months. After that, the UK could still technically leave without a deal.
3. A long delay to Brexit
GettyIt is also possible that Theresa May or her replacement will ask the EU for a lengthy Article 50 extension to give parliament the time to work out a proper strategy. Doing so would be politically explosive and it seems unlikely that Theresa May would pursue such a policy against her own will. However, it is possible that MPs could table an amendment to Thursday’s motion stipulating that the prime minister should ask for an extension of a fixed time period — 12 or 20 months, perhaps. However, it is unclear whether there is a parliamentary majority for such an outcome, as many MPs across are worried about the prospect of being seen to frustrate Brexit.
Britain may have little choice but to seek a lengthier extension however. With the EU setting a deadline of the last week of May for any short extension, the UK government may find itself forced into opting for a longer exit.
4. A general election
GettyConservative grandee Simon Clarke, a leading Brexiteer and member of the ERG, broke ranks before Tuesday’s vote to say that the prime minister should call a general election if she lost Tuesday’s vote. The logic is that the prime minister could campaign on a manifesto to deliver Brexit, increase her majority, and isolate the hardline Brexiteers. The problem is that the prime minister would need to increase her majority by a huge margin to deliver the kind of deal she is trying to push through.
However, Clarke was not alone. There has been increasing chatter among Tory MPs that Downing Street could feel forced to call a snap election, and that it could have the backing of a majority in parliament (which would need to approve such a move because it would contravene the legally-binding Fixed Term Parliament Act, which states that the next election will be in 2022).
"It seems unlikely, but so does every single other possible outcome," one Conservative MP told BI on Monday.
5. Theresa May resigns
GettyIn normal political times, Theresa May would have resigned several months ago. She has survived multiple catastrophic defeats in parliament during her brief premiership, any single one of which would previously have been a resigning matter.
But this is no normal government and this is not normal times. There is some feeling that replacing her at this stage wouldn’t achieve very much, especially if she was replaced by a Brexiteer who tried to push through a similarly undeliverable deal. One former minister who voted against the deal tonight told BI: "I’m not sure what replacing the prime minister would achieve."
Furthermore, it is not technically possible for MPs to remove her as things stand because she survived a confidence vote in December 2018 which gives her a 12-month window of immunity from defenestration attempts.
However, she could ultimately decide, or be persuaded to decide, that her premiership has run her course, and that now is the time to step down and hand over the reigns for a different leader to have a go.
6. A second EU referendum
Reuters/Hannah McKayMay has long refused to countenance the prospect of a second EU referendum. However, the scale of the defeat and the prospect of a potentially disastrous no-deal Brexit could lead to a change of heart.
One factor driving any change would be an offer by MPs to back the deal in exchange for holding a so-called "confirmatory" referendum. This is the position pushed by Labour MP Peter Kyle and one that has been considered by the opposition Labour party. Although still an outside possibility, the prospect of a second referendum can still not be ruled out.
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