Brexit vote delayed – so what now?

This week’s planned vote in Parliament on the Withdrawal Agreement looks to have been postponed to mid-March. What might happen next?

Brexit Source: Bloomberg

UK Prime Minister Theresa May will get plenty of criticism for her decision to delay a meaningful vote this week, but given the vote would face overwhelming defeat (again) the move seems sensible, given her limited options.

Her vote will still not get through as the EU is refusing to budge on any concessions that would allow her to bring her Hard Brexit MPs into line, ie changing the wording of the agreement to indicate that the Backstop will be temporary. The EU’s position is understandable, since it is unwilling to give away concessions that are unlikely to provide the PM with a majority for her deal (it is likely that nothing less than the deletion of the backstop would satisfy the ERG). Instead, like her it aims to run down the clock and see if the other side cracks.

By contrast, Labour continues to object to her deal as it fails to provide a permanent customs union – but the backstop is essentially such a move and a customs union would, if the UK desired it, emerge in the second round of negotiations. Labour continues to aim for a general election, but the loss of MPs last week makes that more of a difficulty.

Indeed, it is possible that, in some circumstances such as a no-confidence vote, the Independent Group (TIG) would vote with the government, given some of its members are now furiously (and publicly) opposed to Jeremy Corbyn.

Wednesday might not see a ‘meaningful vote’, but it will see MPs vote on the Cooper amendment to put Parliament in charge. The government has to get a deal done by 13 March, or the Cooper amendment (if passed by MPs, and it is becoming more likely given the indications by cabinet ministers that they oppose a ‘no-deal’) will take effect. This allows the PM to avoid taking the decision about avoiding no-deal, but will still ensure that this option is taken off the table. This is why the vote on her deal has been moved back to 12 March.

Robert Peston notes that there are three possible options for an extension to Article 50:

  1. A short-term extension based on the idea that the Withdrawal Agreement is passed with little time to spare.
  2. A delay of a few weeks, but not long enough to require UK participation in the European elections.
  3. A longer extension of around 21 months, an option favoured by Donald Tusk, in order to allow the UK to decide what it really wants, and allow the new European Commission and European Parliament to get up and running.

None of which are particularly palatable, but they show how much the EU is worried about a no-deal. Brussels still thinks that, if it gives the UK more time, a second referendum becomes possible, but for now (I stress, for now) no one here is backing that.

The situation is both very fluid and almost static – so many different competing interests and tribes make it hard to suggest what might happen next.

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