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Brexit: what now?

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Unless you have just emerged from a cave on a desolate island in the middle of the South Pacific, you will have seen the news that Theresa May’s Brexit deal has been voted down by 430 votes to 202, killing the deal stone dead. Then, the opposition botched an attempt to overthrow the Government through a motion of no-confidence, losing by 19 votes. While this allows us to move beyond Theresa May’s deal proposal, in reality, it means the last 2 years of negotiations have been an extraordinary waste of time. If 1978-79 was the winter of discontent, this must be the winter of upper apoplectic outrage. You probably want to retreat to a cave on a desolate island in the middle of the South Pacific. Save me some space.

So what now? We really are in uncharted territory, both in terms of Parliamentary procedure and international negotiations. So yesterday, I sat with a coffee trying to work out the possible outcomes.

  1. Vote of no-confidence >>> pass (or new Tory gov in 14 days) >>> back to present dilemma
  2. Vote of no-confidence >>> fail >>> General election >>> Tory gov & back to present dilemma
  3. Vote of no-confidence >>> fail >>> General election >>> Labour gov & re-negotiate or 2nd ref
  4. Theresa May re-negotiate/clarifies/engages in cross-party efforts to fix deal >>> bill back in 3 days >>> pass >>> [END]
  5. Theresa May re-negotiate/clarifies/engages in cross-party efforts to fix deal >>> bill back in 3 days >>> Fail >>> try renegotiate AGAIN
  6. Theresa May re-negotiate/clarifies/engages in cross-party efforts to fix deal >>> bill back in 3 days >>> Fail >>> opts for 2nd ref
  7. Theresa May re-negotiate/clarifies/engages in cross-party efforts to fix deal >>> bill back in 3 days >>> Fail >>> opts for general election
  8. Theresa May fails to re-negotiate >>> commits to no-deal >>> UK Crashes out on 29 March >>> [END]

For a start, it is everything but guaranteed that we will need an extension of Article 50 to carry any of these out. We can cross out options 1-3 (as I have), as they have not happened after the vote of no confidence. Going forward from the premise that the Government has survived the no-confidence motion, we can rule out scenario 8, as Theresa May has begun cross-party talks with opposition parties.

In theory, no-deal technically remains the current trajectory, however, we know that there is a majority in the House of Commons against no-deal, the EU also don't want it and this morning the Chancellor was recorded saying no-deal would be off the table within days. So in practice, this can be ruled out (touch wood).

This leaves options 4-7. The ‘what next’ depends on the success of cross-party talks. Perhaps Theresa May will surrender the red line of not having some kind of customs union. The wiggle room she made for herself in her Lancaster House speech months ago ruled out the Customs Union, but did not rule out some kind of customs union – the difference here being the former refers to the pre-existing EU Customs Union, and the latter would be a new customs union agreement with the EU. Comprende?

The cross-party talks are already somewhat hampered. Labour is refusing to meet until the Government rule out no-deal as an option. The government don’t need labour for a deal to pass, however, it is unlikely that the deal will meet the red lines of the SNP, Greens, DUP and Plaid Cymru if it does not meet Labour’s red lines.

What about a general election? Many are saying that if this group of MPs can’t sort it out, it’s time to swap them about. But no one really knows what this would do. Polls suggest the parliamentary arithmetic would remain much the same. It may give voters some kind of Brexit choice if Labour were to present a coherent Brexit position beyond remaining in the Customs Union, but this hasn’t happened yet. It also requires Theresa May to put her position on the line AGAIN after a challenge to her leadership from her own party and then to her government from the House of Commons. She’s not likely to agree to this option voluntarily.

So to a second referendum… Well, needless to say, this also requires the Labour Party to adopt this as the official party position. While polling tells us that many Labour MPs, members and supporters like this option, Jeremy Corbyn doesn’t. If they were to support this, however, there is the potential that some pro-EU Tory MPs may be willing to throw their political futures to the gutter, resign the Conservative party whip, cross the aisle and vote with the opposition first to bring down the government in a vote of no-confidence and then join a cross-party coalition as independents.

For a coalition of Labour with SNP, Plaid Cymru, Greens and the former-Tories to work, more than 9 Conservative MPs will have to resign from the party. So who might they be?

First, Ken Clarke. The political titan and ‘Father of the House’ self-proclaims to be the most pro-EU Tory there is. He has tried to offer support for alternative Brexit deals, but these won’t materialise. He has also ruled out standing in the next election… So what does he have to lose?

Anna Soubry is another key figure of the pro-EU Conservative wing. While she has said that she cannot foresee deserting her own party and joining a Labour-led government, her frustration with some in her own party is almost on a par. She has already said she would resign from the party if hard-Brexiteers begin to take control. Joining the other side may become the principled option for her.

Similarly, the former Attorney General, Dominic Grieve, makes no secret of his desire for a second referendum. He has tried numerous parliamentary tricks to put a second referendum on the table. If he exhausts all procedural options, he may opt to sacrifice his political career and pursue this final course of action.

The former Minister for Education Justine Greening has also publicly endorsed a second referendum. As a former Minister in Theresa May’s government, this would be a blow to the confidence of the government. Whether she’s willing to throw a potentially bright political future down the drain is the other question.

Fortuitously for this potential outcome, today it has been announced that more than 9 Tory MPs will form a group called Right To Vote supporting a second referendum. Heidi Allen, Sam Gyimah, Phillip Lee, Guto Beb, Sarah Wollaston (alongside Anna Soubry and Justine Greening) launched the campaign this morning. That takes us to 9. The final necessary MPs to topple the government could be either Paul Masterton or Tom Tugendhat, who have both notionally given support for a second referendum in the past.

Will it happen?

It’s certainly a long shot. But these are extraordinary times and anything is possible. We will likely have to wait until after the next vote on the Withdrawal Agreement on Monday (likely to fail) and probably until after the Prime Minister brings back a new proposal, which is reportedly going to be on 29 January. Watch this space. Theresa May certainly will be.

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