Brexit Brief: Now What?

Posted on 16th January 2019

The moment of truth

Last night, the deal brokered over 18-months long negotiations between the UK and EU was decisively rejected by parliament by 432 votes to 202. The outcome of the vote in itself was no surprise. The margin of 230 votes, however, exceeded even the largest predictions, inflicting the biggest government defeat in modern British history. With only 73 days to go until the UK exits the EU, political turmoil will test May’s ability to keep her deal and her premiership alive and determine the future of Brexit.

Damage control

In the past few weeks, continuous attempts to limit the scale rather than to avert the loss ignited high parliamentary drama. None of the tricks up May’s sleeve secured the sea change required even to put a dent in the rebellion. Even the 11th hour diplomatic effort by EU leaders on the Irish backstop did not make the deal any easier to swallow for MPs.

Show must go on…

In May’s view, she might have lost this battle, but she hasn’t lost the war. At least not yet. The prime minister offered cross-party talks with MPs to figure out a way forward. Then, if a consensus emerges, she would bring a revised plan to Brussels. Whether further discussions will produce enough concessions to push the deal over the finish line is hard to say. The EU has not made May’s task any easier by refusing to reopen negotiations on the withdrawal agreement. Before May does anything, she will face a confidence vote in her government. Labour’s effort, however, is unlikely to garner sufficient support, leaving the prime minister safe for now.

… but parliament’s running it

Where does this leave us? Thanks to an amendment passed last week, Theresa May must return to the Commons by Monday to outline how she intends to proceed. MPs, now clustering in cross-party groupings plotting various models for the future, are not waiting for the prime minister’s Plan B. They are writing it themselves. Remainers are demanding a softer Brexit. Brexiteers are calling for a mitigated no deal. Others are plotting to change the Commons rules for motions proposed by MPs to take precedence over government business. As the timeline is getting dangerously short, an extension of the Article 50 deadline looks almost inevitable. With barely 10 weeks to go before Britain’s scheduled departure, we are only more certain of uncertainty.

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