On Tuesday 11th December, parliament will cast its judgement on Theresa May’s Brexit settlement – and the odds are stacked against the PM. As Andrew Marr put it in his eponymous TV show this morning, the PM is heading for a brick wall – with her foot on the accelerator. And despite having been engaged in many a u-turn during her premiership, this time it appears the lady is not for turning.
Some pundits have predicted a defeat for the government numbering in the hundreds. In normal times, such a heavy defeat would surely sound the death knell of the government – but we live in anything but normal times. In fact, one of the defining features of the May government is its incredible ability to cling on to power in the face of a seemingly endless torrent of bad news and faux pas.
Those who expect a defeat to put an end to Mrs May’s premiership on Tuesday may be interested to note that her government is already the most embattled in living memory, having lost a total of 16 votes – as many as her three direct predecessors, David Cameron, Gordon Brown and Tony Blair, combined. Indeed, to give credit where credit is due, the Prime Minster has confounded the pundits from the time of the snap election, when she was already being written off as in office but not in power.
With this in mind, it is unclear whether a defeat on Tuesday would be enough to finally topple the Prime Minister. Even Boris Johnson – who’s unlikely to be on Mrs May’s Christmas card list this year – has said that she should carry on as PM in the event of a defeat. But what happens when – as looks almost inevitable – the deal is voted down in parliament?
The “no-deal” option has been touted as the nightmare scenario by many from the Remain camp, but it is often cast in a much more favourable light by hard-line Brexiteers. Either way, as things currently stand, Brexit will go ahead at 11pm on 29th March 2019, regardless of the arrangements put in place by the government. In a sense, therefore, no-deal is the default option, despite there being a majority against this scenario in the Commons. Indeed, an amendment tabled and carried through by ex-attorney general Dominic Grieve will now enable parliament to vote to block a no-deal outcome, although this would not carry the legal clout necessary to prevent the government from pursuing a no-deal Brexit if it was determined to do so.
In the event of the deal being defeated on Tuesday, ministers would have a three-week window to propose a way forward. Should the government suffer only a narrow defeat, that might give the Prime Minster enough leeway to go back to Brussels and tweak the deal, but there is considerable scepticism about how receptive the EU would be to such overtures, especially as this would probably entail renewed demands from the EU 27 as well – this is a two-way negotiation after all!
In the event of a heavy defeat on Tuesday, the pressure on the PM to resign would surely be significant, particularly from the influential ERG (European Research Group) wing of the Tory Party. Jacob Rees-Mogg and his hard-Brexit acolytes have thus far failed to reach the magic number of 48 signatures that would be enough to trigger a no-confidence vote, but a major defeat would surely add some more signatures to that list.
Another possible outcome from a heavy defeat is a second referendum, although admittedly this looks an unlikely scenario at present. Mrs May has steadfastly opposed a second referendum and it has negligible support in the Tory Party and, at best, limited support amongst Labour MPs. The Labour leadership has insisted that “all options” should be on the table, but a second referendum would almost certainly require a delay to Brexit – which would entail a vote by all the EU 27 and the UK. Any government looking to hold a second referendum would also have to consider the implications for public trust in the political system: having delivered the ‘wrong’ answer the first time round, there is no guarantee that the public will give the ‘right’ answer the second.
Labour’s preferred outcome, should the May settlement be voted down on Tuesday, is a general election. However, with the clock still ticking down to Brexit, an election could be a very unwelcome distraction. In any case, Labour is unlikely to get its way given that the Fixed Term Parliament Act requires at least a two-thirds majority to call an early election. Labour could table a motion of no-confidence in the PM – as is its stated intention, should the vote result in a defeat – but this would give someone two weeks to show that they can command a majority in the Commons. Under this scenario, Tory MPs – together with their DUP allies – would surely coalesce under a new leader, if only to avoid a Jeremy Corbyn-led government.
The only thing uniting all these possible scenarios is the fact that each one is equally unpalatable to different people. But perhaps this reveals a hard truth about Brexit: it means different things to different people and it was never going to satisfy everyone, least of all parliament. Mrs May’s Brexit deal has been labelled “the worst of all worlds” by her opponents – but in truth, mightn’t it simply be a case of muddling through, something we Brits pride ourselves on? Who knows, perhaps that’s exactly what Mrs May will do on Tuesday?