Scene set for three days of Brexit drama

Theresa May has set the scene for a succession of dramatic Brexit showdowns in the middle of March. But what might happen and what would the implications be?

– March 12

The vote

The British Prime Minister has promised to bring her Withdrawal Agreement back for a further “meaningful vote”. Mrs May says she will call the vote “by March 12”, but few in Westminster think she will be ready to face MPs any earlier than that Tuesday.

How will it go?

On her last attempt to win Commons approval for her deal, in January, Mrs May lost by a record-breaking 230 votes. Some 118 Conservative rebels from both the Leave and Remain wings of the party as well as all of her DUP allies joined up with virtually all of the opposition to inflict a humiliating defeat.

Theresa May addressing the House of Commons after the defeat of her Withdrawal Agreement (UK Parliament/Mark Duffy/PA Images)
Theresa May addressing the House of Commons after the defeat of her Withdrawal Agreement (UK Parliament/Mark Duffy/PA Images)

Since then, the British PM and her allies have tried to wring concessions from Brussels on the controversial backstop, which is hated by the DUP and Leave-backing Tories in the European Research Group.

Simultaneously, the Government has highlighted the dangers of the UK leaving without a deal – or missing out on Brexit altogether – in the hope of persuading critics that they cannot risk her plan failing altogether.

Labour MPs have been wooed with offers of protections for workers’ rights and money for “left-behind communities”.

Key to Mrs May’s chances of success will be securing strong assurances – preferably of a legally binding nature – from Brussels that the backstop, designed to keep the Irish border open, will not be permanent.

If she can deliver enough to satisfy the DUP and the ERG – or at least provide them with a fig leaf to soften their stance with dignity – then she may have the makings of a majority.

Even with the Brexit hardliners on board though, it is likely she would need the votes of about 20 Labour MPs from Leave constituencies to seal victory. As things stand, it still looks a long shot.

What happens next?

If the British PM wins, she can go to the European Council on March 21 with Parliamentary support in the bag, ready to complete the final steps to ratification.

However, Parliament will have a formidable amount of legislation to complete in order to leave the EU on March 29.

Having already conceded the possibility of an extension to the Article 50 negotiation process, Mrs May might be ready to ask for another few weeks to allow the necessary bills to be passed.

Whatever the formal date of Brexit, little will change until the end of the transition period in December 2020.

If Mrs May loses, Britain faces the possibility of a chaotic no-deal Brexit on March 29 or an extension of negotiations.

Mrs May would be faced with the decision of whether to tear up her twice-rejected Withdrawal Agreement and seek consensus around a different plan or to make one more push to get the existing deal over the line.

Many in Westminster expect her to do the latter.

– March 13

The vote 

If the “meaningful vote” is lost, Mrs May has promised a vote the following day  on whether the UK should leave the European Union on March 29 without a Withdrawal Agreement or a framework for its future relations with the EU.

If it takes place, as expected, on March 13, this vote would come immediately after Chancellor Philip Hammond’s Spring Statement, due the same day.

How will it go?

There seems little doubt that Parliament would emphatically reject no-deal at this point.

An amendment in January opposing no-deal was passed by eight votes in a defeat for Mrs May.

Now that the British Prime Minister has indicated she is prepared to accept an extension to Article 50, it seems unlikely that any but the most hardcore Conservative Leavers would vote to insist on departure on March 29 without a deal.

Only a handful of the most fervent Eurosceptics regard no-deal as the best outcome and most of Westminster’s Brexiteers are likely to be ready to swallow an extra few weeks in the EU so long as they are sure that the ultimate destination will be reached.

What happens next?

It is important to remember that this vote does not rule out no-deal forever. It only expresses the view of the Commons that the UK must not crash out without a deal on the scheduled date of March 29.

That date is already written into Brexit legislation, which would have to be hastily amended.

And EU rules state that the European treaties cease to apply to the UK on March 29 anyway unless Britain revokes Article 50 or all 27 remaining states agree to extend it.

– March 14

The vote

If Mrs May’s deal and a no-deal Brexit are both rejected by MPs, the Commons will vote on March 14 on an extension of the two-year negotiating period to take the date of withdrawal beyond March 29.

How will it go?

Having got to this point, it seems unlikely that MPs would turn down the opportunity to extend Article 50.

Downing Street has said that any other result would be “contradictory”.

However, there will certainly be some opposition. ERG chairman Jacob Rees-Mogg has warned that any delay to Brexit looks like “a plot to stop Brexit”, and some staunch Leavers will be reluctant to give up the totemic date of March 29.

An extension of Brexit negotiations can be expected to fire up protests on both sides (Victoria Jones/PA)
An extension of Brexit negotiations can be expected to fire up protests on both sides (Victoria Jones/PA)

Much may also hang on the precise wording of the motion.

Mrs May has suggested that it would be difficult to extend negotiations beyond the end of June, as this would require the UK to elect MEPs to the European Parliament in May.

Opponents of her agreement worry that getting an acceptable deal will take more than a couple of months.

As the motion will be amendable, there may be attempts to impose a lengthy delay of as much as two years. Expectations are that MPs will finally settle on a short extension.

What happens next?

First of all, Mrs May would have to request an extension, which must be approved by all 27 remaining member states.

This would probably be secured at the European Council in Brussels on March 21.

EU leaders are thought to be generally willing to grant an extension, but some may insist it should be accompanied by a shift in UK position to make a final agreement more attainable.

Reports suggest Brussels officials would like an extension to the end of 2020, to allow time for thorny issues about the future relationship to be properly tackled.

A short extension would give a brief breathing space for Mrs May to try to secure a majority behind her deal, probably by securing stronger assurances from the EU to work on technological solutions for the Irish border.

It would also provide her with a new weapon by creating a firm deadline of the end of June for MPs to choose between her deal or no-deal, as the UK cannot remain in the EU beyond that date without electing new MEPs.

Alternatively, it would give her a little time for cross-party talks to try to achieve consensus on an alternative plan.

A long extension would require the hasty arrangement of elections to the European Parliament, with Ukip and the new Brexit Party campaigning fiercely against what they see as the “betrayal” of Brexit by the Government.

Talks in Brussels would move on to the future trade and security relationship.

Opponents of Brexit would seize on the loss of momentum in the process to renew demands for a second EU referendum.

- Press Association

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