Few want the UK to crash out of the EU without a deal. After a tumultuous week for Theresa May, the chances have risen that Brexit won’t happen at all.
This week the chances have risen that the United Kingdom will abandon Brexit and remain in the European Union. This may seem an odd conclusion to draw when Theresa May backed out of a vote in Parliament on her plans to leave the EU—and 48 hours later saw more than one in three of Conservative MPs oppose her in a vote of no confidence in her leadership. But let us consider the key events of the days, weeks, and months ahead.
December 2018 European Council meeting
At this week’s EU summit in Brussels, the prime minister will seek a legally watertight commitment to give the UK the right to withdraw the Irish backstop (the arrangement designed to ensure that the border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic remains open, regardless of the progress of talks on the UK’s long-term trading relationship with the EU). She will fail. She may well secure a general “reassurance” that the Irish backstop will stay for as short a time as possible, but nothing that changes the legal basis of the deal she signed.
The vote in the UK Parliament on the withdrawal agreement
The UK Government is formally committed to a vote on the agreement by January 21, 2019. It could come as soon as next week. Almost all non-Conservative MPs will vote against it— including Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party, which entered into a deal to keep Mrs. May in office after last year’s general election, when the Conservatives lost their majority. In addition, more than 100 Conservative MPs (out of the party’s total of 317) have said publicly that they will vote against the agreement. If every MP keeps to the position they have announced, more than 400 MPs will vote against the deal, while no more than 220 MPs will support it. This would produce a crushing majority of 200 against the government.
We should not be surprised if the vote is in fact closer than that. But a defeat by, say, 80 or 100 would still be decisive. While a defeat by 10 or 20 would encourage Mrs. May to try again a week or two later, a significantly greater loss would kill her hopes of ever getting the withdrawal agreement through Parliament.
The Prime Minister’s response to MPs’ rejection of her plan
In one respect, Mrs. May has been strengthened by her less-than-overwhelming victory in this week’s no confidence vote. Under Conservative Party rules, another such vote cannot be held for twelve months. This fact increases her freedom of action when MPs reject the withdrawal agreement. She can seek a way forward that attracts MPs from a number of parties. If she succeeds, then she might be able to secure a majority in Parliament—even if the hardline, Conservative Brexiters oppose her new plan—safe in the knowledge that her position as prime minister is secure for the time being.
What would that new plan be? Few MPs want the UK to crash out of the EU without a deal. The government’s own projection suggests that a no-deal Brexit could cost almost 10 percent of GDP.
We also know that the EU will reject any revision to the current deal. The only way forward that is likely to satisfy both Brussels and Westminster is for the UK to align its economy more closely to the EU than the withdrawal agreement proposes.
One option is the “Norway Plus” plan. Norway is outside the EU and its Customs Union, but is a member of the Single Market. Norway Plus would broadly replicate this relationship but with the UK also remaining in the Customs Union, or something like it. The advantages are clear: frictionless trade with the EU would continue; Ireland’s border could remain completely open; British jobs, investment, and prosperity would suffer far less than any other form of Brexit. The disadvantages are equally clear: like Norway, the UK would have to make continuing payments to the EU; the UK would be subject to EU rules and regulations without having any say in them; the UK would have to maintain freedom of movement for EU citizens—anathema to those pro-Brexit MPs and voters who want the UK to have the right to control immigration.
The more those disadvantages have been discussed at Westminster, the more the prospect of Norway Plus has faded. Which leaves only one option standing: not leaving the EU at all. This prospect has risen sharply in recent days—not because there is (yet) majority enthusiasm for it at Westminster, but because it is dawning on growing numbers of MPs that this could end up as the least-bad route out of the present crisis.
Although big majorities of Labour MPs, party members, and local Labour voters want the UK to remain in the EU, the party leadership has not yet embraced either this objective or the obvious way to achieve it—calling a fresh referendum. Instead, Labour is demanding a general election.
This will probably (though not certainly) fail. Most MPs, whatever their differences on Brexit, don’t want to risk an election that could make Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn prime minister. They won’t vote for an early election. Corbyn will then come under huge pressure from within his party to back a second referendum. The chances are that he will agree, albeit reluctantly. With support from MPs in other parties, including a significant minority of Conservatives, there will be enough MPs across Parliament to call a referendum.
The request for an extension of Article 50
Under the UK’s rules for holding referendums, it would take at least five months to arrange one. Depending on when Parliament takes the decision, it could not be held before July, or possibly September, next year. This means that the UK will need to remain in the EU beyond the scheduled departure date of March 29, 2019. This is likely to be agreed by the rest of the EU. But following this week’s ruling by the European Court of Justice, the UK could, if necessary, simply withdraw the letter it sent last year and stay in the EU, at least for the time being.
The referendum question
Deciding to hold a referendum is one thing; getting agreement on the precise question is another. The likeliest choice it would offer is Remain versus the withdrawal agreement. But some people will demand other options. Remain versus no deal is one; a three-way (or two-stage) referendum is another: in which Remain, the withdrawal agreement, or no deal start off as possible options for voters.
The referendum result
The signs are that Remain would win. A YouGov poll last week for the Sunday Times found that, of those who took sides, 62 percent backed Remain, while just 38 percent backed the withdrawal agreement. The 24-point Remain lead is easily the largest in any recent poll. Moreover, it fits a pattern of a steady decline in support in recent weeks for Brexit and the government’s handling of the issue.
It should be stressed that nothing is certain. But the prospects are rising that the UK will remain in the EU beyond March 29, 2019 and perhaps indefinitely. It’s not that there is (yet) enormous enthusiasm among MPs for a referendum. However, come the new year, it could well be the only rational option left to MPs.
Peter Kellner, Carnegie Europe, 13/12/2018