It is difficult to work out what the next steps will be in Parliament and what the Tories and the Labour party will propose in the inexorable countdown to Brexit.
What we do know is what has happened up to this point. The Withdrawal Agreement negotiated between the UK and the EU has been voted down in the UK Parliament by the huge margin of 202 to 432. Theresa May has survived a no-confidence vote of 306 to 325 and therefore a General Election which is Jeremy Corbyn’s answer to achieving a successful Brexit is not on the cards until the next no-confidence vote, whenever that may be. As the deadline approaches Theresa May appears to be banking on the fear of a no-deal Brexit to make MPs choose her Withdrawal Agreement over the prospect of crashing out of the EU with no agreement and no two year transition. A risky strategy but the only one she’s got.
It is almost impossible to second guess what is going to happen in Parliament but this is a list of the options which remain for the UK, excluding of course the Scotland only option of an independence referendum.
The Five UK Brexit Options
Option 1. Renegotiate the Withdrawal Agreement.
The EU have been clear on this. The Withdrawal Agreement which is about how the UK pulls out of the EU and which contains the backstop for the Irish/UK border is not up for re-negotiation. They are however, willing to look at the Political Declaration which goes with it and which essentially lays out a wish list for future negotiations but that is only if the UK is willing to cross its own red lines on issues like a Customs Union. If the UK is willing to do that then an Article 50 extension might happen to allow time for changes to the Political Declaration in the hope this would make the Withdrawal Agreement more attractive to MPs in the Parliament. However the EU are not going to grant any more time for UK MPs to argue among themselves over the current Withdrawal Agreement unless Theresa May comes up with some serious alternative proposals.
“The EU’s chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier said on Wednesday (16 January), following the British parliament’s rejection of Theresa May’s Brexit deal, that the bloc was open to talks on the future relations – if Britain drops its red lines of leaving the single market and the customs union.
“If the United Kingdom chooses to let its red lines change in future, and that it takes this choice for its advantage of the ambition of going beyond a simple but not negligible free-trade accord, then the European Union would be ready immediately to … respond favourably,” Barnier told MEPs in Strasbourg.”
He was also clear on the status of the current Withdrawal Agreement.
Barnier called the Brexit deal negotiated between the EU and the UK over the past 24 months the “best possible compromise”.
Option 2. A Second Referendum
A second referendum has the support of the SNP, the Lib-Dems, Plaid Cymru and the Greens but not Labour. An open letter was sent on Wednesday (January 16th) by all these parties to Jeremy Corbyn calling for Labour to support a second referendum which as far as I’m aware has not received a reply.
Corbyn made a speech in Hastings today (the 17th of January) after the failure of the Withdrawal Agreement and the no confidence vote and in the speech he was still equivocal about calling for a second referendum.
“If the UK was facing the “potential disaster” of a “no-deal” Brexit then Labour would look at the option of a second referendum, Mr Corbyn said during a speech in Hastings on Thursday.
However, the Labour leader stressed the party would still prioritise trying to secure a general election or achieve a Brexit deal on the terms they have demanded.”
Corbyn was also unable to come out with a clear declaration of which side Labour would campaign on in the event of a second referendum.
“However, taking questions after his speech at the venue on Hastings’ seafront, he left open the question of which side Labour would campaign on in a public vote.
“If a second referendum should take place, then obviously the party will decide what role we will play in that and what our view would be,” he said.”
So at the moment, without Labour support, a second referendum is not on the cards and today the Government circulated a timetable which stated that a year would be required to organise a second Brexit referendum.
This estimate of a year by the Government is twice as long as the estimate by the LSE in September 2018 which estimated that if done quickly it would take about six months from start to finish. The Government timetable would appear to be a device to try and see off a second referendum by making the run-up period appear as long as possible. Kicking it into the long grass by making it an unattractive option for the EU simply by the year long extension to Article 50 required to hold it.
Would the EU give a year’s extension to hold a second referendum? If Labour won’t say which side they will campaign on then very probably not.
Option 3. A General Election
There may be another General Election if May loses another no-confidence motion but the earliest an election could be held under that scenario is the 11th of March for a no confidence vote called on Monday the 21st of January. That’s fourteen days to try and form an alternative Government and then a minimum of 25 working days after the dissolution of Parliament. However that’s a best case scenario as it’s up to the Prime Minister to name the day. Corbyn seems confident that he can negotiate a better deal but since the negotiations are about the Withdrawal Agreement and its included backstop the EU are unlikely to grant an Article 50 extension while the UK swaps Brexit parties. Corbyn doesn’t seem to be quite up on the mechanics of leaving the EU as the Withdrawal Agreement is not about trade deals but about pulling out of the EU in an orderly fashion. Any incoming Labour Government would have to put the same Withdrawal Agreement up for a vote in Parliament as the EU is not going to change it now. Why would the EU bother extending Article 50 for another Brexit party to try and pass the same Withdrawal Agreement offered before the UK Government changed hands?
Option 4. Revoke Article 50
Following on from the ECJ ruling the UK can revoke Article 50 unilaterally. Neither the Conservative Party nor Labour has talked about this but it is an option and can be called into play right up until the 29th of March. If it looks like the UK is going to crash out with no deal then simple fear might mean the MPs utilise this option.
Option 5. Leave with no deal
The default option. If no Withdrawal Agreement is signed, if no more elections or referendums are on the cards and neither May nor Corbyn has the authority to get their parties to vote to revoke Article 50 then the UK leaves with no Withdrawal Agreement which means no transition period in a car crash Brexit.
An Article 50 Extension.
The EU are pragmatists. Behind the options to either rework the Political Declaration, hold another referendum or hold a General Election is a requirement for an Article 50 extension to give the UK Government more time to work on these options.
- If the EU think that the Withdrawal Agreement can get past Parliament if Theresa May makes the Political Declaration more attractive by crossing the UK’s red lines then they will seriously consider extending Article 50 for that.
- If the EU think that a second referendum will result in a Remain vote they will seriously consider extending Article 50 for that referendum. However that depends on how they think the parties, especially Labour, are going to campaign and if the outcome is fairly certain for Remain.
- If the EU think a change in Government will result in the UK remaining in the EU then they will seriously consider that also. However that depends both on what Labour plan to campaign on in a General Election and what their chances of winning look like.
The elephant in the room as always is the Irish Border, or to be more exact, the UK/EU land border. The EU are not going to change that bit of the Withdrawal Agreement or any other part come to that. In fact they’re not going to extend Article 50 at all unless they can see it as being of benefit to the EU.
The EU is fed up with the UK and what they don’t want is uncertainty continuing with no obvious end date to the Brexit negotiations. Unless they can see some agreement being possible or a good chance that their preferred option of the UK staying in the EU will come about they will simply give up and take the hit of a no deal Brexit. It will also have the side benefit being a warning pour encourager les autres.
Which way do I think it will go? I don’t know. Trying to work out what’s going to happen next in Parliament and in the EU on Brexit simply has too many political variables and all you can do is try and work out what is still possible and try not to be surprised.