As Theresa May once again failed to get her deal through the Commons, the UK is now set to crash out of the EU on 12th April without a deal, and without a plan for what happens next.
The indicative votes that weren’t
Despite MPs seizing control of Commons business – a disaster for the government – they failed to give any indication of a way through the impasse. Every single option was voted down, albeit by varying majorities. The option with most support was a nebulous ‘Customs Union 2.0’, with no real indication of how this would work in practice.
May managed to bring her deal back for a third vote, and got round an earlier ruling by the Speaker telling her to stop taking the mickey by separating out the Withdrawal Agreement from the Political Declaration. This time she managed to slash the majority down to 58, which was quite an achievement given that previous votes had seen her lose by 149 and 200+, but there were still sufficient Tory rebels to stop the deal going through. However, it did receive more votes than any of the options put forward by MPs, suggesting that she might get it through on a fourth attempt.
The chaos within Parliament has given Labour another opportunity to bang the drum for a general election, which of course is always the demand made by the second party.
A general election raises four major questions though. First and foremost, will the EU grant us another extension? This is a necessity because Parliament has to be dissolved 25 days before polling day, which means an election cannot be held until the middle of May at the earliest. It only takes one other member state to use their veto to bring the whole process to a halt. I don’t think the big players would do so, and it’s certainly not in Ireland’s interest to do anything which might precipitate no deal, but one of the smaller countries might decide they’ve had enough.
Second, will the UK take part in the elections to the European Parliament? A further extension would make this essential, unless the EU somehow managed to fudge the rules so that an outgoing member state did not have to take part if elections happened to fall within the withdrawal period. I doubt such an exception would be made though, as it would throw the EU into complete chaos if the UK ended up remaining in the EU. It also begs the question of whether any candidates will want to run in the elections – why bother when you could be made redundant within six months of being elected?
Third, who would lead the Conservative party into the next election? Theresa May cannot be forced out until December, and her offer to resign was contingent on her deal being voted through Parliament. Changing leaders during a campaign would be unprecedented, but the party might consider it a gamble worth taking, though none of the alternatives look particularly compelling. Given the timescales involved to put a vote to the membership, the only option would be for MPs to circumvent this by ensuring that one candidate was elected unopposed.
Fourth and finally, there is no guarantee that a general election would solve the problem. The Conservatives are consistently polling higher than Labour, and Theresa May is also rated higher than Jeremy Corbyn – though both leaders have negative net favourability scores. A general election might leave the Parliamentary arithmetic effectively unchanged. Even if Labour was to end up with a majority, Corbyn is just as pro-Brexit as May. He might somehow manage to squeeze a few minor concessions from the EU, but we would still end up leaving and people would still lose their jobs as a result.
No deal is now even more likely than a couple of weeks ago, whereas the one chance of the UK remaining in the EU has been swept away. Psychic Paul now predicts that the only two options likely are either that MPs finally get behind May’s deal on a fourth vote – she will keep asking until she wins or time runs out – or the countdown ends and we crash out without a deal. As I said a couple of weeks ago, the only thing to do now is brace for impact and hope we can somehow get through this.