On Wednesday evening, the majority of the House of Commons voted to rule out a no-deal Brexit under any circumstances. We can draw two conclusions from the outcome of the vote: on the one hand, Prime Minister Theresa May suffered another defeat in parliament, as she wanted to rule out leaving the EU with no deal at the end of March only and not in general. Her attempt to push through a rejection of this proposed amendment with the help of the conservative whip clearly failed. Even some members of government voted against May’s orders or abstained at least. On the other hand, May used her speech after the vote to quite rightly point out that unless new concessions are made, the UK will still leave the EU at the end of the month without an agreement. After all, the result of the vote is not legally binding. Furthermore – and this is easily forgotten in London – the European Union also has a say in the matter.
A good deal can be read from the prime minister’s loss of power. Under normal circumstances, the defeats in the votes of the past few days would be more than enough reason for a head of government to leave office. However, we are not dealing with normal circumstances here and Theresa May continues to show her fighting spirit. She sees the latest vote as an opportunity to still push the deal that she has negotiated with the EU through parliament.
In the next upcoming vote on delaying Brexit, the prime minister wants to present MPs with two choices on how matters could proceed further. They either accept the deal she has negotiated with Brussels by next Wednesday, which would result in a short technical delay to Brexit of a few weeks or months, or she would ask the EU for permission to significantly delay the departure date. In this context, we are looking at up to two years and hence the necessary participation in the European election in May.
The option of delaying Brexit by several years can be interpreted as a threat to the Brexiteers. Ultimately, they would face the growing risk that Brexit will be cancelled altogether – whether due to new elections or a second referendum. Talks are already being held behind the scenes with Brexit hardliners and representatives of the Northern Irish DUP, whose votes May is reliant on in parliament for a majority. At the heart of this once again is the Attorney General Geoffrey Cox and his verdict on the potential consequences of the backstop clause to avoid having a border within Ireland in the exit agreement. It is being speculated that the Brexiteers are demanding Theresa May’s resignation as prime minister in return for their support for the deal. However, some MPs are already making it quite clear that they will not allow themselves to be blackmailed by May.
The only thing that is clear at this stage is that a majority in the House of Commons is in favour of delaying Brexit to avoid a hard Brexit without an agreement at the end of the month. In this respect, Theresa May will, in all likelihood, ask for a deferral at the EU Summit starting next Thursday. Nonetheless, it is highly questionable whether her plan will work out until then and she does manage to secure a majority backing for her deal in a third vote. Although the EU will listen very carefully to what the UK wants to spend the additional time on, ultimately, Brussels will hardly allow itself to carry the can for the possible outcome of a no-deal Brexit and approve a postponement.
If you like, some good can come out of the fresh turn in the Brexit chaos, as it will give the observers the opportunity to occupy themselves once again with the customs and traditions of the House of Commons. One could then see if the Speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow, has to deliver what is a difficult message for Theresa May for the third time. “The Noes have it, the Noes have it”.