Last act in the Brexit pantomime? Oh no it isn’t…

Last act in the Brexit pantomime? Oh no it isn’t…

Protesters hold banners as they participate in anti-Brexit demonstration march in central London, Britain January 12, 2019. (Reuters)

In one of the most important UK political moments of the postwar era, the House of Commons will vote on Tuesday on the Brexit withdrawal deal. Thus begins perhaps the most decisive few weeks in modern UK political history, as Parliament takes much more control of the fraught process after a series of dramatic legislative amendments last week. 
With the scheduled deadline for Britain to leave the EU at the end of March fast approaching, and an exceptionally weak government on the verge of collapse, the House of Commons raised the odds last Wednesday by passing what might appear to be an obscure procedural amendment. In fact, it is a significant political setback for Prime Minister Theresa May, in that she must present a “new” Brexit plan within three days if the vote is lost on Tuesday.
This latest twist in the long Brexit tale adds to the political uncertainty over the UK’s scheduled EU exit. Much is likely now to hinge, politically and for the financial markets, on the scale of the prime minister’s expected loss on Tuesday. 
At the most catastrophic end of the spectrum for May, some pundits have forecast that the government could lose by about 200 votes. Such a bracing defeat could trigger the political endgame for May, who has not ruled out resigning if she loses. Even if she decides to stay and fight, there will be a fresh impetus behind a House of Commons vote of no confidence in her leadership and renewed calls for a general election, suspension of the Article 50 process and/or a referendum on the Brexit withdrawal deal.
Yet after a heavy loss on Tuesday, it is also possible that any significant financial-market volatility could sway more MPs to support her plan in a second vote. A parallel here might be the Troubled Asset Relief Program legislation in the United States in 2008, which was a key component of the Bush administration’s measures to address the US sub-prime mortgage crisis. The legislation was initially defeated in Congress but passed on the second attempt soon after, when the markets tanked.

At the most catastrophic end of the spectrum for May, some pundits have forecast that the government could lose by about 200 votes.

Andrew Hammond

A rosier scenario for May, which would not just bolster her position but could move the markets, would be a significantly narrower loss than predicted — or even the extremely slim possibility of a win. The latter appears highly unlikely but nothing can be ruled out in the febrile environment of Westminster politics.
If May does lose and chooses to stay to fight, she may well urgently contact her fellow European leaders to seek further withdrawal concessions. While EU leaders have said there is no scope for further negotiation on the deal, there could yet be overwhelming incentives for both sides to try to get the agreement “over the line.”
One further consequence of a government defeat on Tuesday, which is driving Parliament’s move to take back control in the face of the May team’s incompetence, will be for both sides to expedite “no-deal” preparations. It is this no-deal scenario that particularly worries the many MPs who are now seeking to tie the government’s hands in an attempt to prevent that outcome.
Last Tuesday, for instance, the government suffered a significant defeat on its finance bill when a cross-party group of MPs passed a key amendment limiting the government’s tax-administration powers in the event of Britain leaving the EU without a deal. 
In the maelstrom of next Tuesday’s vote, one of the few certainties is the continuing disagreement within the UK political elite over Brexit, more than two years after the referendum. As the debate over May’s withdrawal deal versus other, harder and softer, variants of Brexit shows, this is not simply a Leave versus Remain argument.
This is because those who voted in 2016 to exit the EU did so for diverse, and sometimes divergent, reasons, which makes fashioning support for a withdrawal agreement difficult. Some Leave voters, for example, of an isolationist bent focused on the costs and constraints of EU membership that were perceived to limit UK sovereignty on issues such as migration. Meanwhile, a significant section of the electorate voted to exit as a protest against non-EU issues, such as the domestic austerity measures implemented by UK governments since the 2008-09 financial crisis.
However, other Leavers voted in 2016 for an alternative vision of a buccaneering, global UK that could, post-Brexit, secure enhanced political and economic ties with countries outside the EU. It is many of these people — who favor more, not less, international engagement — who now want to see, for example, new trade deals with key Asian markets such as China and India, the Gulf Cooperation Council states, and mature markets such as the US, Canada and Australia.
The continuing divisions on these issues within the wider electorate are underlined in opinion polls, too. These now generally show more people favoring EU membership than not, and the country split over whether maintaining access to the European Single Market or being able to limit migration should be the key objective of Brexit.
May is now besieged on many fronts and it would be a sensational result were she to win on Tuesday. With the nation still so divided on Brexit, a heavy defeat will inject a new element of uncertainty into UK politics which, with Parliament now taking center-stage in the process, could yet see her ousted from power, a suspension of the Article 50 process, an EU withdrawal-deal referendum and/or a general election in short order.

  • Andrew Hammond is an Associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics
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