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Defeat, deal, or no deal?
December 2018 / January 2019

Theresa May defends her deal: Her chances of getting it through increase once an election and referendum are ruled out (© PA Images)

As I write this, Theresa May is on her feet in the Commons defending the Withdrawal Agreement she brought back from the EU’s Brexit summit in Brussels. The Withdrawal Agreement will be voted on in the House on December 11, with three days of debate the previous week. Since this issue of Standpoint will remain on sale until the end of January, its readers have a certain advantage in knowing where we stand with Brexit — but I will, perhaps foolishly, consider where we are heading and where I think we will be by early 2019.

It is looking extremely unlikely that the Withdrawal Agreement will be approved by the Commons at the first attempt. At the time of writing 95 Conservative MPs have pledged to vote against May’s deal along with the 10 DUP MPs. From the opposition benches, the MPs likely to support her at present seem limited to independent Unionist Sylvia Hermon, ex-Labour MP John Woodcock and still Labour MP John Mann. If the vote turned out like that, roughly 224 MPs would support the deal and 415 would oppose it — the actual vote figures would be slightly lower on both sides due to Tellers and a limited amount of pairing.

The number of Tory rebels will almost certainly be whittled down and May may win over a few more opposition MPs — but it is still an extraordinarily steep hill to climb. The more certain it is looking that the government will lose the vote, the larger its defeat will be. The greater the number of Conservative rebels, the less risky it is to the individual Tory MP to rebel. The more certain the government is of losing, the less attractive it is for opposition MPs to support the Withdrawal Agreement — why risk one’s political future if what one is voting for will be defeated anyway? The government, if it is facing certain defeat, may be tempted to pull the vote, or rather delay it until after Christmas in the hope that something, anything, happens in the meantime. This is a tried and tested formula, much loved by May — but after all the hype this would be almost as humiliating as losing a vote in the House.

What happens after the initial defeat? The government will have to state very swiftly what it intends to do next. May could state that her policy has been rejected and it is thus up to others to offer solutions — and resign. On past performance this seems unlikely. If we know one thing about May, it is that she always seems to want to carry on however bad the outlook. Look at her response to the disastrous 2017 general election.

The government will really have three choices. It could announce that its attempt to find a negotiated Withdrawal Agreement has failed and it is going for a no-deal WTO terms Brexit. It could argue that, since its preferred policy had been rejected, it would now be pursuing a Norway-style option and seeking membership of EFTA. This solution would find wide favour in the House — even among some Brexiteers as it certainly gives a smaller role to the European courts and returns greater sovereignty to the UK than May’s agreement — but it would preserve free movement to a significant extent.
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