Mayday as big Brexit defeat could force PM out of office
Theresa May’s premiership is hanging by a thread after the House of Commons on Tuesday night voted down the Brexit withdrawal deal by 391-242. While the scale of defeat was less than the 432-202 margin in January, it was another historic defeat and May could now lose control not just of the EU withdrawal process, but also of her wider term of office.
Despite May’s last-minute shuttle diplomacy in Strasbourg on Monday, the accord she reached with the EU simply wasn’t enough to deliver victory on the central mission of her government. Ultimately, the fate of Tuesday’s big vote was sealed by the advice of May’s own Attorney General, Geoffrey Cox. He ruled that Monday’s accords “reduced, but did not eliminate” the likelihood that the UK could remain, indefinitely, in the so-called Irish backstop arrangements against its will.
This legal judgement simply did not give sufficient “political cover” for many of the hard-line Conservative Brexiteers and the 10 Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) MPs, who prop up May’s government, to fall behind the deal. Many of these MPs had been hoping for further concrete legal assurances that the Irish backstop would not become a permanent arrangement that would leave the nation effectively tied to a customs union with the EU, which is strongly opposed by many Brexiteers and the DUP.
In a nutshell, May ultimately lost because only 43 of the 118 Tories that voted against her deal in January came over to the government’s side of the ledger on Tuesday. This doomed the measure, and possibly her premiership.
With many Tories unhappy with the way May has led withdrawal negotiations, there are now growing risks to her premiership. Brexiteers, for instance, argue that a change of occupant — and a more robust approach — would be needed in Downing Street for the next stage of talks, if a withdrawal deal is ultimately agreed, on a future UK/EU trade deal.
However, May’s political strategy failed not only with Tory and DUP backbenchers, but also the Labour opposition too. She failed to peel off any more Labour MPs in constituencies that voted to leave in the 2016 referendum beyond the three who voted for her deal in January.
With May’s future now so uncertain, her tenure in Downing Street will be particularly precarious if Parliament votes, which could happen as soon as Thursday, for an Article 50 extension, potentially delaying Brexit beyond the currently scheduled March 29 leaving date. It is likely, but no means certain, that the Commons would take up this opportunity to request an extension to Article 50, and it is in this scenario that the chances of a general election and/or a further referendum would grow.
A key question, however, is how long such an extension would be for. Even if London asks for only a very short technical extension to try to complete the Brexit withdrawal process, Brussels may want to see a longer timeframe to avoid another deadline crisis in April or May.
With many Tories unhappy with the way May has led withdrawal negotiations, there are now growing risks to her premiership
There has even been some discussion in Brussels of a much longer extension of Article 50, potentially even up to December 2020, which is when the planned transition period, if a withdrawal deal is agreed, is due to end. However, a key challenge with this proposal is that any extension that goes beyond July 2 — the first day the new European Parliament meets — is that UK politicians would have to take part in the May 23-26 elections. It is for this reason, and the complications this would bring, that an extension no later than June is perhaps most likely.
Any extension to Article 50 would probably not be finalized with the EU until next week’s summit of presidents and prime ministers in Brussels. In this context, there are still several days in which the prime minister could, potentially, have one further attempt at getting her deal through.
One trigger for this is the possibility she could get further concessions from Brussels next week. If this were to happen, she could potentially then seek to expedite votes from March 23 through both the House of Commons and the Lords. The reason why this scenario cannot be ruled out is that May knows she will be most vulnerable in the event that Article 50 is extended for several months or more.
There are many ways that she could be forced out of office in the coming days or weeks, short of her own resignation. Such an immediate resignation can only happen if she tells the Queen who should replace her. This may see the effective deputy prime minister, David Lidington, act in a sitting capacity while a Conservative leadership contest takes place.
Other ways May could be ousted include losing a vote of no-confidence in the Commons (the last one in January failed). Moreover, there remains a possibility that the Cabinet demands that May go, possibly by several of them resigning themselves to make the prime minister’s position untenable.
Taken overall, May is at the weakest point yet of her premiership. In the coming days, she could yet be forced from office and much may now depend on whether there is any extension of Article 50. The prime minister will be particularly vulnerable if the currently scheduled March 29 Brexit day is delayed for several months or more.
• Andrew Hammond is an Associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics